A night at the council

Business as usual at city hall

Walks are good.

Yesterday, I took one. Days lately have been work, sleep, repeat, writing bulletins with shelf lives oft measured in hours. When there's time, you call your folks, who once promised to stay home and now talk about shopping – "I need green beans" – and running errands, no matter what you say. "Go ahead, be stupid: Do your part to reduce Social Security deficits," you finally tell them. "Millennials will thank you." They laugh.

Dogs live in the now, and so it is a fine time to own a pug. As always, Champ couldn't wait, greeting his leash like it was the vaccine we all crave.

We headed for the cemetery, which may sound morbid, but Oak Ridge under March sun is a calming place. It's usually near empty when we take our usual constitutionals, usually late in the day, but this time, it was empty at lunchtime, like everyplace else. It is hard to be mad at anyone in a graveyard, and, with madness all around, getting mad has been easy. A president who seems so far in over his head, picking fights and hurling insults. Idiots who flocked to bars for last-call parties when watering holes shut down. A mayor who's been slow to grasp the gravity of pandemic and the truth about how germs spread.

As much as it could, Oak Ridge worked its magic, and we went home. While Champ snoozed, I went to a Springfield City Council meeting.

click to enlarge The Springfield City Council was in session for more than two hours to talk about such things as zoning and Pillsbury Mill. - PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON
Photo by Bruce Rushton
The Springfield City Council was in session for more than two hours to talk about such things as zoning and Pillsbury Mill.

The council convened one day after Gov. JB Pritzker signed an executive order closing bars and restricting gatherings to 50 people – Mayor Jim Langfelder kicked things off by reading the part about the Open Meetings Act. "Public bodies are encouraged to postpone consideration of public business where possible," Langfelder recited. "When a meeting is necessary, public bodies are encouraged to provide video, audio and/or telephonic access to meetings to ensure members of the public may monitor the meeting."

The Chicago City Council's Tuesday meeting was canceled. Two school districts in Illinois have announced that they'll hold electronic meetings. In Springfield, Tuesday's council meeting lasted nearly 2 ½ hours, with five aldermen participating by telephone. Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso and Ward 3 Ald. Erin Conley had recently quarantined themselves after learning that they'd been in contact with an infected person.

Alderman passed zoning matters, approved a consent agenda that included a liquor license for a restaurant and otherwise behaved exactly as they do when there isn't a pandemic, except they spent a fair amount of time talking about the pandemic. The council talked about annexing Grandview and pondered money. "We have got to tighten our belt," warned Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer, who foresees financial woes. Ten minutes or so was spent discussing Pillsbury Mill, which wasn't on the agenda.

It seemed an eternity, but it wasn't all gloomy. "There's a ray of hope in China," said Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, pointing out that just one new case has been found in the province where the pandemic began and was controlled after cities were sealed off for weeks while millions of people were required to report their temperatures each day. "That's a really significant accomplishment we can take comfort in."

Eighteen people, mostly city employees, were in the audience. Someone sat directly behind community relations director Juan Huerta nearly the entire time, well under six feet separating them. During the public comment period, a man concerned about the homeless – his wife manages the city's warming center where people have been sleeping a few feet apart – said the center is doing fine, but times are tough. "It's personal," he told the council. "Yesterday, my son was put in quarantine because a patient that he had to deal with has COVID-19. So one of your Springfield paramedics is sidelined for the next two weeks."

"Thank you for serving us, and we appreciate it," the mayor responded.

After speaking, the man stepped away from the podium and stood next to me. He had an "I Voted" sticker on his coat. I moved.

Afterward, I asked Langfelder whether any business could have been postponed, as the governor had suggested. Everything, he responded, is important to someone. What about electronic meetings? Nope. City hall is closed to the public, but the mayor told me that next week's meeting will be held as usual, and he'll be there. If you're not on a ventilator, I thought to myself.

I asked the mayor why he'd attended St. Patrick's Day festivities at downtown bars last Saturday, hours before the first cases in Sangamon County were announced. The mayor said bars he patronized had fewer than 250 customers, within crowd limits then in effect. "When I did go downtown, I showed reassurance to people," the mayor told me. "That's what they say – you need to show reassurance to people. I don't have any second-guesses on that." Like most everyone else, he told me, revelers talked about the virus.

As I left, I stopped to chat with homeless folks on the plaza outside city hall. There were about a dozen people. Someone had a cheap half-gallon of vodka. Folks stood close together, a few with arms around each other. Someone approached me, extending his hand for a shake. Finding showers and doing laundry since the Washington Street Mission closed, they told me, has been tough.

I drove home and gave Champ some cheese. Then I checked in with mom and dad.

Contact Bruce Rushton at

brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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