City council hears Simpson playground upgrade plan, complaints, thanks on mask measure

Also approves 3% pay increase for mayor, clerk, auditor positions prior to election filing period

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Lou Cowherd, far left, president of the Friends of Chillicothe Parks organization, presents details and an artist's renderings of a proposed new children's playground area in Simpson Park to the Chillicothe City Council during its meeting this past Monday evening. A key aspect of the new area, which would be immediately north of the current playground area in the northeast corner of the north-midtown park, would be accessibility to children with physical limitations, even those confined to wheelchairs. The council voted to move ahead with initial engineering work for the proposed site.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Staff Writer

A proposal to enhance children’s playground equipment at Simpson Park – particularly with an eye toward play opportunities for children with physical limitations – and pro and con public comments on the recent enactment of a mask-requirement declaration for local businesses occupied the majority of the time at this past Monday’s semi-monthly Chillicothe City Council meeting.

In terms of actions taken by the council at the meeting, beyond routine business, in advance of the filing period for next spring’s municipal office elections, the city’s governing panel approved the recommendation of Darin Chappell, city administrator, to institute a 3% pay increase for the positions of mayor, city clerk, and city auditor for the next term of each of those positions. The amount mirrors the most-recent pay raise given to city employees, Chappell noted.

Additionally, the council approved unanimously the disbursement of $50 gift cards to all full-time and year-around part-time city employees in lieu of some traditional employee-appreciation events the city normally hosts for employees, but could not this year, due to COVID-19-related crowd-event restrictions.

Dana Thomas (second from left), Livingston County/Chillicothe E-911 dispatcher, and Cindy Hanavan (second from right), Chillicothe Police Department office manager, were honored during this Monday's Chillicothe City Council meeting for their calm, effective, and distinguished performances during a recent, potentially-highly-dangerous, multi-jurisdictional pursuit of two persons, efforts which allowed officers involved in the pursuit from Linn to Livingston to Caldwell counties to work in coordinated, well-informed, and safe manner that resulted in apprehension of the suspects without bloodshed. Sharing details of the situation and how Thomas' and Hanavan's work under complicated circumstances helped defuse the situation safely were Chillicothe Police Chief Jon Maples, left, and Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox, right.

The council also gave recognition and commendations to Livingston County E-911 Center dispatcher Dana Thomas and Chillicothe Police Department office manager Cindy Hanavan for their composed and highly-professional work in coordinating multi-agency responses to a potentially-dangerous recent chase of criminal suspects.

The pursuit, which moved from Linn County into Livingston County/Chillicothe and then on to Caldwell (Hamilton) County, eventually resulted in the safe apprehension of the subjects, Chillicothe Police Chief Jon Maples and Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox shared with the council and those in attendance at Monday’s meeting.

The situation was of particular note, the agency leaders pointed out and detailed, not only because of its transient nature and potential for being unable to apprehend the suspects, but because it first developed at a time when Chillicothe and Livingston County law enforcement leadership, including Hanavan, were away from their facilities at a 911 meeting at the Chillicothe Fire Department building.

Thomas drew praise for – while being alone at the E911 center at the time until Hanavan was able to rejoin her there – calm and efficient handling of accepting and relaying information from and to the multiple law-enforcement agencies which became involved. She did so, Maples noted, while continuing to handle other, unrelated dispatching duties for city and county officers on patrol and dealing with unrelated incoming telephone calls and in-person visitors.

One other bit of council action was related to the Simpson Park playground project, the summary details of which were presented to the council by Lou Cowherd, president of the Friends of Chillicothe Parks, Inc., organization begun several years ago.

The council approved moving forward with the costs of necessary engineering work for the site of the new playground area. Because of the composition of the current soil in the northeast corner of the park and the location’s lower elevation in relation to both adjacent U.S. Highway 65/North Washington Street and a small creek on the north side, the location will need to be restructured, soil- and elevation-wise to facilitate proper, effective runoff control and drainage and prevent undermining of the planned area’s structure.

The project will integrate multiple new pieces of playground equipment suitable for children from toddler age (approximately two years old) up to age 12 years, Cowherd and Josh Norris, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, indicated at the meeting. Norris said the current “fenced-in” area for toddlers will be removed.

A key aspect/attraction of the proposed new facility, shared Cowherd, is that multiple pieces of play equipment, including a small merry-go-round type of ride, will be accessible to children with various physical and mobility limitations, including those confined to wheelchairs. She pointed out that none of the city’s parks currently have any such playground equipment.

The precise location for the proposed 7,300-square-feet new area is immediately north and slightly east of the main youth play area in Simpson Park’s northeast corner. It was emphasized by both Cowherd and Norris that all of the current play structures in the existing area (outside of the fenced toddler area), including the long-time landmark “rocket” slide, will remain in place.

Financially, Cowherd shared, the Friends of Chillicothe Parks, Inc., has received approximately $340,000 in donations from local foundations, other organizations, and individuals since it organized. Supplemented by a $100,000 commitment from the city government, the monies now are in place to pay the anticipated $436,400 cost of the project (equipment, base surface, and engineering).

Referencing a nearly-half-million-dollars upgrade to the city’s park for only a $100,000 outlay of public funds, Cowherd shared that, beyond the potential for improved quality of life for local youngsters – especially those faced with extreme physical challenges, in her view, from a purely-fiscal perspective, “It’s a really good deal for the citizens of Chillicothe.”

Norris also stated, “What the Friends of Chillicothe Parks have developed and are proposing is far and above what I thought we (as a department) could do” when the parks and rec department developed a long-range plan for parks upgrades a number of years ago.

After concluding its scheduled business, the council opened its usual public-comment segment. Aware beforehand of the mask-requirement measure being a topic, Mayor Teresa Kelly welcomed all those on hand with the request for all to maintain mutually-respectful attitudes.

Perhaps a couple of dozen persons had gathered in the meeting room at the Chillicothe Municipal Utilities building, which has become the location for council meetings during this COVID-19 pandemic period, due to its larger square-footage. Most were present to share their viewpoints on the joint mid-November move by the city and county governments to require all businesses and gathering places to post signs advising all customers/patrons entering that they must wear a mask or be subject to being told to leave. Eventually, eight person – the last being administrator Chappell – addressed the council on the mask matter.

The first several speakers – including a local business owner/operator and other citizens – shared disagreement with the council’s imposition of the measure.

Some decried specific requirements, such as enforcement by a business’ or office’s staff, of the measure aimed at trying to further limit spread of the novel coronavirus. Others questioned the general advisability of the measure from a legal or health-preservation perspective or the procedural integrity of the process by which the measure was approved on Nov. 18 (with implementation beginning Nov. 20).

Three staff members or officials from Hedrick Medical Center in Chillicothe appeared to endorse the council’s decision and thank it for it. They cited the stress the hospital’s staff is experiencing as the facility, operated by St. Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City, operates at near-capacity, in terms of admitted patients, with a near-constant flow of persons through the emergency room, virtually around the clock.

In addition, Ed Douglas, presiding commissioner of the Livingston County Commission, listened to others’ comments and then shared his thinking from both his official position in signing off on the recommended “mandate” and his personal views on both the wisdom of it, while also acknowledging the difficult position it puts many businesses and citizens in.

Once all members of the crowd who wished to address the council had done so, Chappell spoke, primarily in explanation and reiteration of why the measure, which includes the possibility of non-complying businesses facing fines for allowing unmasked persons in their facilities, was drafted as it was.

While the city government felt it was in the general public’s health interests to do everything possible to increase the use of masks by the citizenry, he indicated, as a practical matter, while it may well the authority to institute such a measure, the city does not have the law-enforcement personnel or fiscal resources available to enforce it as a matter of routine operations.

The intent was to further emphasize the desire for achieving as much voluntary compliance as possible through citizen-to-citizen encouragement and peer pressure. While the measure the council passed included the provision for possible fining of non-compliant businesses, at no time was the city looking to actually do so, he – and, subsequently, each council member – stressed.

Following the public comments, the council took no action nor indicated any plans to modify the mask measure or its implementation/enforcement any in the immediate future.

The next scheduled Chillicothe City Council meeting will be Monday, Dec. 14.