May 17, 2022

Council moves bond referendum forward without park board recommendation

Advisory board was not able to meet before city presented $1.6M proposal

Members of the Newton Park Board were not able to provide a recommendation to the city council regarding the projects they would like to see on the park bond referendum. One park board member says he was contacted by citizens who were disappointed the council would seemingly forego their advice.

Typically, the city’s boards and commissions provide guidance to council on their preferred action for specific topics. But the final decision is ultimately up to city council. Each time the bond referendum was discussed in a public meeting, park board member Bryce Heitman received numerous text messages from residents.

“Both meetings I had people texting me during the meeting pretty upset with the process (and) wondering where park board’s recommendations came in and what council was essentially deciding off of,” he said, noting people questioned the point of even having a park board if it doesn’t have a voice in this scenario.

Heitman indicated he felt the same way.

“All I can do is express that my phone blew up during both meetings and people were wondering where council was taking their advice and where park board sat on this,” Heitman said. “And I told them it hadn’t been presented to us. I would say all those people support the clubhouse. They know things need to be done.”

But those same people disagree with how the situation went down, he added.

PARK BOND BACKGROUND

Newton Community Services Director Brian Laube said all projects presented to park board members in November were also presented to council a number of times. During those discussions, city staff did not lobby for any particular project, either, but did present cost estimates.

According to minutes from the November park board meeting, members were going to decide on a third project in the park bond referendum at their next meeting. However, the Dec. 15 park board meeting was cancelled due to severe weather, which resulted in a derecho.

In November, park board was shown four options for the city to move forward with the Westwood Golf Course clubhouse project. The fourth option proposed the city utilize a bond referendum, putting the clubhouse reconstruction and other parks project on a ballot for citizens to ultimately decide.

The park board specifically voted in favor of recommending the city council move forward with the Westwood clubhouse project utilizing the park bond referendum Option No. 4 as soon as possible. This particular option also included upgrades to the play features at Maytag Pool and an unspecified third project.

At the Jan. 17 city council meeting, elected officials told staff split the third project into two more projects — so, four projects in total. City council members latched on to the installation of pickleball courts and a downtown dog park that would likely be built in Sunset Park, a space staff have been trying to develop for years.

Heitman asked if there is anything restricting the park board from scheduling a special meeting in case situations like this were to occur. Laube said no.

MISUNDERSTANDINGS WITH SPLASH PAD

Newton Mayor Mike Hansen provided some insight into the city council’s decision making process, saying council members took their goals and the goals of the park board into consideration. The two entities clearly agreed on the clubhouse.

But at first Hansen assumed the reaction Heitman received from residents may have been in response to council member Randy Ervin’s recommendation to not include the splash pad in the park bond referendum. The community’s divided opinions on the project, Ervin argued, could be detrimental to the vote.

However, Heitman — who is heavily involved in the committee spearheading the splash pad project — told Hansen he was not correct in his assumption. The people who contacted him are more so against “the overall spending,” he said.

“They’re not against the clubhouse, but they’re against the overall spending and exactly what that goes to and what areas of the community that is enhancing” Heitman said, adding he did feel like the splash pad would align with the goals of the park board and city council.

The splash pad is included in the 2021-2023 city council goals list.

Hansen did still want to speak about the splash pad project. He called it a valid proposal and said the arrangement council made with the committee to keep a downtown green space available for the development of the splash pad. Hansen said it was even included in the redevelopment district proposal.

“But because of a comment that was made by a city council member — and it’s his opinion based on feedback he received from citizens — doesn’t necessarily mean the splash pad is not going to happen,” Hansen said. “It just simply means it was not included as part of this bond referendum.”

STAFF AND MAYOR APOLOGIZE

It is a shame the park board members did not get a chance to make a recommendation to council, the mayor added.

“Sometimes those things happen. From my perspective, I apologize that wasn’t able to happen because of either time constraints or some misunderstandings about (how) you can have special meetings and those types of things,” Hansen told park board members.

He also said it has always been the city staff’s position to collaborate with the boards and commissions they’re assigned to, as well as advise council.

“This is a situation where an analysis was made about the information we were receiving. There was some, if you will, push to try and get this on a ballot in March. Frankly, I advised council that I didn’t think that was attainable, because there are so many different pieces here,” Hansen said.

Current timelines anticipate the vote will take place June 7. Hansen said the bond referendum will not affect the city’s debt service levy, which also factored into council’s decision. All of the city’s boards and commissions are important to the council, Hansen said.

“Your opinions and your recommendations are extremely important to us, so I apologize. How we moved this along, it might seem like it was in a hurry or we ignored any information from y’all. But I will tell you city council took your recommendation from your goal setting,” Hansen said.

Laube also apologized for not communicating the opportunity to hold a special meeting to members of the park board.

Melanie Humphrey, chair of the Newton Park Board, said, “In all the years I’ve been the park board I never thought about having another meeting.”

MOVING FORWARD & WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Laube said he will be fine tuning cost estimates before council meets again. The bond is anticipated to not exceed $1.6 million, which would be divided amongst the projects. Even though the park board was unable to provide a more direct recommendation, the council may be able to propose revisions to the resolution.

“It’s not official until the resolution is passed and it’s been signed,” he added.

Laube said staff downplayed estimates from the private fundraising group who will contribute to the construction of the Westwood clubhouse. The city began meeting with “the small group of citizens” interested in the clubhouse in mid-summer. Currently, the project is estimated to need $325,000 in private funds.

“A few of the people are telling us we’re estimating that conservatively,” Laube said. “So I didn’t want to go out there and throw too much on there.”

If the resolution for the bond referendum receives council approval, Laube again reminded park board the city cannot advocate for or against the vote. The city can provide the details of the projects involved, but it will be up to private groups to spearhead endorsements. Or, Laube puts it, “take the ball and run with it.”

Staff indicated a bond referendum resolution would be considered during the February city council meeting.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.