City council offered use of Neuharth Center

City council offered use of Neuharth Center by David Lias The Vermillion City Council has been given an opportunity to move its regular meetings to roomy, handicapped accessible facilities in the community.

But only a couple of aldermen, including Mayor-elect Dan Christopherson, expressed support for the idea Monday night.

The city has been offered the use of the Freedom Forum Conference Room of the Al Neuharth Media Center on The University of South Dakota campus.

Unlike the city council meeting room in Vermillion's city hall, the conference room in the newly refurbished media center is handicapped-accessible, more spacious, and contains a modern sound system, acoustics and other technology.

"We agreed to make our facility available to the city for the next 12 months, after which Vermillion may have a solution to the city hall issue and the meetings may find another permanent home," said Jack Marsh, director of the Freedom Forum.

Christopherson pitched the idea before his colleagues shortly before the end of Monday's council meeting.

"One of the things I've heard about over the past several months concerns the accessibility of the meeting location, and we've talked in the past about possibly (using) the fire station, the library or the law school," he said.

Christopherson, who included moving city council meetings out of the second floor city hall meeting room in his position statements during his successful campaign for the mayor's office, said he talked with Fire Chief Doug Brunick.

"We felt that it could be accomplished there, but in talking with Jim (Patrick) about moving the (television) equipment there, it may or it may not survive the move because of the age of the equipment," he said.

Christopherson spoke with Marsh, and learned that it would take "a minimal effort" to successfully adapt the conference room in the Neuharth Center for the city council.

"We could use the existing camera equipment," Christopherson said. "It's all wired as far as (television) cameras. We'd probably have to buy a few microphones."

He noted that the ground-floor room has excellent accessibility. Use of the conference center would put an end to the current practice of carrying wheelchair-bound individuals up two flights of stairs to attend meetings in city hall.

"It's always worried me about carrying people up and down the stairs here," Christopherson said, "and I think we all agree that something is going to be done with the city hall situation at some point."

It could be a year before a citizens' committee studying the city hall issue makes a recommendation, he said.

"In the meantime, I'd like us to at least consider the Neuharth location," Christopherson said.

The city could use the conference room free of charge for a year. It would cost approximately $50 per meeting to pay a technician to set up and operate camera equipment to televise the meetings over the city's cable TV system.

Should the city need to hold special meetings at a time when other activities are scheduled at the Neuharth Media Center, city hall could be utilized, Christopherson said.

Alderman Gary Wright suggested that city staff determine the feasibility of moving meetings to the new location.

"One of the concerns that I have, and I guess that it's more hearsay information than anything," said Alderman Tom Davies, "but I've been told that there is a concern out there that we have a tendency

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to favor the university, and we're influenced more significantly by the university than what we should be.

"Having our meetings at a university building � I don't know how that's going to be viewed," he said.

"If at all possible, I would like to see council meetings in a city building," said Alderman Jack Powell, "and I've heard the same thing during the last campaign that there is too much of a tie to the university. I think this looks even worse. Holding it in a university facility, I'm not sure what liability risks the city would assume versus the university, so I would like to see us in a city facility."

"That's the ideal, but I don't see this building (city hall) changing much in the next year," Wright said. "All I'm asking for is that city staff look at it (the Neuharth Center) to determine if it's a feasible location, and bring that information back to the full council."

Davies asked Christopherson to share the citizens' feedback he's received.

"I don't hear anything negative," Christopherson said. "I've heard that we (the city and USD) have a good relationship, and this would be a way to make it a better relationship.

"It's not a permanent thing; it's a short-term thing, and in fact I think it's viewed as more of a cooperative thing � that we're helping each other out," he said.

"I don't know if you're considering a contractual relationship, but spending time on that campus, I know from time to time that there are priorities for use of space," Mayor Roger Kozak said. "I don't know what our priority would be in the scheme of things if there is an event that would suddenly require the use of that space.

"I don't know that the city would be priority one for that facility, so that may be another thing to consider as you are investigating it, that you have (the use of the conference room) on the first and third Mondays of each month," he said.

Kozak said using the city hall council chambers as a back-up location should a conflict arise at the Neuharth conference room "would be disruptive, too, to the citizens. You want to have the meetings in a location, good, bad or otherwise, that's consistent."

He asked council members to keep in mind that the second floor city hall meeting chambers are used approximately four to six hours a month, but the main floor offices, which also suffer from accessibility problems, are used eight hours each work day.

"I think we should show equal concern for citizens trying to get at the services of the staff as well," Kozak said. "It's not bad that we are approaching this and trying to find a solution, but I don't want it to be an end-all.

"I think a greater concern is the accessibility of the citizens to the services of the city," he said. "That should be uppermost in our minds."

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