On Tuesday, the Champaign City Council met to vote on rezoning several empty lots on the north end and to approve a contract for a brokerage firm to negotiate city employees health insurance and benefits. To many, those might sound like two of the most boring subjects imaginable, but the city council’s meeting had passionate community members, council members fighting for their constituents, and a rebuke of city staff.
The rezoning petition focused on three vacant lots near 4th St and Washington St. The lots, which have been empty for several decades, were recently made available for sale by the city. They were bought by Phil Fiscella, an entrepreneur and practicing realtor who manages several rental properties in town and is on the Board of Trustees of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District.
Fiscella wants to “build a wooden fenced, screened, and gated area and put office units.” To this end, he is petitioning the City Council to rezone the area for commercial-industrial use.
The lots are surrounded by a residential neighborhood and are currently zoned as single family housing, meaning that no business can build and operate there. According to the city’s long term land use plan, which was adopted in 2011, the lots are part of an “Established Neighborhood,” meaning the city believes “the existing character of these areas should be protected when new development is preserved.”
The rezoning faces strong opposition from both neighborhood members and city staff. Several neighborhood residents of the neighborhood spoke in opposition ot the plan at the meeting. Andrea Newman, a resident whose property faces the lots, said: “I’m very concerned about how our neighborhood would change if this zoning is changed,” later adding “we’re afraid we could have some loitering, trash, perhaps an uptick in crime.”
Another neighborhood resident, John Towns, was the only other applicant to buy the land from the city. He had intentions to turn the lot into a private garage, even having blueprints drawn up for the project. “We don’t want anything back there that’s gonna make our property value go down,” sharing some of the concerns that Newman raised about increased traffic and noise.
Fiscella, for his part, said “I do understand very much the concern of the neighbors. Applying for this zoning change was not our first choice.” Fiscella added that two recent shootings, on July 15th and August 20th, happened in the lot. He also claims his crews remove between two bags and a pickup bed’s worth of garbage, including empty alcohol containers, from the lot each week.
The City Council chose not to vote on the matter this week, instead choosing to conduct a formal study session on the issue sometime in late September or early October. This decision was made at the motion of Council Member Clarissa Nickerson Fourman, who represents the neighborhood. After acknowledging the need for economic development in the area, Fourman said “I’m not sure we have enough public input on this.” Fourman’s motion to refer the issue to a study session was unanimously approved.
The City Council also fiercely opposed the adoption of a new contract with USI Insurance Services, a brokerage and consulting firm the city currently works with. The contract detailed a new five year service agreement with USI for a flat $40,000 annual fee.
The contract is the result of a request for proposals process overseen by the City Manager Dorothy Ann David, Risk Manager Larry Krause, and Human Resources Director Amanda Farthing.
The process was governed by a scoring matrix which includes “Experience and References” as 30% of the overall score. The city’s staff did not check any references that USI included, citing the fact they had worked together before.
This fact was met with strong opposition from several city council members, notably Council Member Fourman and Deputy Mayor and Council Member Tom Bruno. Fourman said “For me it’s really the principle of the point. And I say that because I’m the council member that gets calls from small black businesses who are bid out of our cleaning RFPs and when I try to talk to staff about the RFP they tell me how important references are, but then the staff is sitting in front of me right now telling me ‘Well it’s at discretion.’” Fourman stressed that the process needed to be governed by an agreed upon and fair process and that this process was not that. “I know I’m just one person but y’all should just cut this and start this one over because this don’t look good at all.”
Bruno added that, in his experience as a practicing attorney, the contract was poorly written. City staff had made a point to say part of the justification for the high annual fee was that there would not be any commission charges. Bruno said “My gosh, the contract was five pages long and I looked at it and the first thing that leapt out at me was that it was $40,000 plus commissions,” adding “I think that’s an unforgivable piece of sloppiness that makes me suspect.”
The council unanimously rejected the contract as it was written, leaving city staff to manage writing a new contract.
The council also unanimously voted to extend the emergency order and several policies relating to the COVID-19 pandemic with no discussion or objection.