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City Beat: Council sends E-Verify decision to public vote

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City beat from the Sept. 6 City Council meeting: For minutes and schedule, visit springfieldmo.gov/citycouncil.

Amid passionate rhetoric, a full house Sept. 6 at City Hall saw Springfield City Council, minus Councilman Scott Bailes, split its votes 4-4 on whether to approve an initiative petition that would require businesses in the city to use the free federal employment eligibility program, E-Verify.

At first, it appeared the controversial measure – crafted by Ozarks Minutemen to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers – would pass if only to be amended to prevent the city from facing lawsuits. City Attorney Dan Wichmer said the monetary penalties outlined in the petition are likely unconstitutional. Councilman Robert Stephens made it clear that he abhorred the measure – calling it “immoral” and saying it put a local Band-Aid on the nation’s problem of illegal immigration without addressing any root causes – but said he would vote for it to spare citizens the $145,000 expense of putting it on the ballot and to end the divisive debate. And Councilmen Jerry Compton, Nick Ibarra, Tom Bieker and Mayor Jim O’Neal each said passage of the ordinance, though flawed, would be in the best interest of the citizens.

But a plot twist, followed by a break in the action, led to an unexpected result.

The mayor, who spoke last on the measure, called for his peers to pass the initiative, change it to make it legally sound and protect the city from litigation, and then put it before the voters. This move garnered the interest of Councilwoman Cindy Rushefsky, who only minutes before said its passage was akin to “using a bomb instead of a flyswatter” to fight a less than pervasive illegal immigration problem in Springfield.

“We can make it better, but we can never make it good,” Rushefsky said of the bill.

Still, she made a motion to table the measure to thoughtfully consider the mayor’s request, a move O’Neal said he vetted with legal staff just before the meeting. This led to a 15-minute break in the meeting as Wichmer tried to determine if tabling the measure was possible given that the law requires action within 30 days of the petition being verified and presented to council. He determined that council was first notified of the ordinance Aug. 10, which meant Sept. 9 would be the last possible day to pass the bill or fail it and send it to voters.

Feeling his proposal had not garnered significant support and fearing that it might not reach voters once amended, O’Neal voted against the E-Verify ordinance.

A date for the city ballot initiative, most likely Feb. 7 or March 6, probably will match the date of the state’s 2012 primary, which could move to March from February as a part of the current special session in Jefferson City.

Ibarra spoke with the most certainty about his support of the failed measure. He said a vote against the bill “was disrespectful to those who do the right thing,” by immigrating legally. “It’s disrespectful to those who defend the rule of law,” Ibarra said.

According to city staff, 10 of Springfield’s largest employers already use E-Verify, and companies are currently required to verify individuals’ employment status through federal I-9 forms. Business proponents, including Joe Jenkins of Diesel Exchange Inc., say the E-Verify system is more efficient and more secure.

Both Councilman John Rush and Councilman Doug Burlison said they could not vote for the measure, though they understood that by passing it, it could be more easily amended. Compton and Bieker said the bill was workable. A council workshop to discuss ways to amend the ordinance was scheduled for Sept. 7, but it was cancelled after the bill did not pass.

The measure drew 17 public speakers at its first reading, with 10 opposed and seven in favor of the bill’s passage, according to city clerk records.

CU budget
City Utilities’ $528.8 million fiscal 2012 budget was presented to council for a first reading. Patrick Platter, chairman of the board of public utilities, said no rate increase was sought despite the fact that CU only expects its number of residential customers to increase by 0.6 percent, and nonresidential customers by 0.3 percent in the upcoming fiscal year. He said industry trade groups say 2 percent growth in both categories is par for the course in normal economic times.

CU General Manager Scott Miller called the city-owned utility provider’s operating budget “basic,” noting efforts were made to keep expenditures low in the coming year that begins Oct. 1.

CU officials said an aging infrastructure and looming federal regulations mean the utility provider could have to manage up to $200 million in upgrades down the road. Kansas City-based consultant Burns & McDonnell was hired to analyze costs of upgrades it expects to endure during the next five years from new rules being planned by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“As regulations come forward, rates will have to cover the cost of improvements. We will have to wait and see what the regulations are when they come into play,” Miller said.

Brick City proposal
A pair of bills tied to the Brick City redevelopment also received their first reading at the meeting. The measures would extend the previously approved redevelopment plans tied to that area making them consistent with Center City zoning, which allows for heavy manufacturing and educational uses.

City Senior Planner Matt Shaffer said the Stray Dog Redevelopment, which includes a warehouse at 221 W. Phelps St. for high-end pet accessory retailer Unleashed Life still requires exterior work, and its property at 503 Boonville Ave. is still vacant. The property owners, Taylor-Martin Properties LLC and Model Market LLC, want to be able to market to potential tenants to allow for mixed uses and be able to apply for partial tax abatement before May 30, 2014, Shaffer said.

A June report to council on current redevelopment plans, he said, found some nonconformities in use for the Brick City Redevelopment Corp. with its properties. The current bill would adjust the redevelopment plan to allow for educational uses – Missouri State University’s art department has been a tenant of Brick City since 2008. Shaffer said its plan is about two-thirds complete, and the deadline for applying for tax abatement would be extended to Dec. 31, 2012 from Dec. 1, 2007.[[In-content Ad]]

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