After a special meeting of nearly two hours, members of the Montgomery County Board voted 17-2 to approve a proclamation in support of Montgomery County businesses, organizations and houses of worship. Voting against the proclamation were Jim Moore and Chuck Graden.
The special board meeting was held Thursday evening, May 28, and was called by a contingent of board members including Dennis McCammack, Glenn Bishop, Mark Hughes, Earlene Robinson, Glenn Savage, Jeremy Jones, Kirby Furness, Sandy Johnson, Connie Beck and Donna Yeske. Many of the board members were present at the Historic Courthouse in downtown Hillsboro, while others called in via conference call. The only board member absent from the meeting was Richard Wendel.
After the Pledge of Allegiance, Montgomery County Clerk and Recorder Sandy Leitheiser read the proclamation, which includes that businesses, organizations and houses of worship should be given the opportunity to re-open in a safe manner if they so chose. The proclamation continues that the continuation of the governor’s orders closing non-essential businesses is a threat to those businesses and the county’s economy. It also stated that those businesses and houses of worship are responsible for their own compliance with the state of Illinois regulating bodies and their own liability.
Leitheiser said the proclamation had been reviewed by the county’s liability insurance and that the county would not be held legally liable as a result of this proclamation.
First to speak, board member Bill Bergen offered his support of the proclamation, saying that he feels state government has gone too far in taking away rights and freedoms from local residents.
“Really, this whole situation has scared me, and I think it should scare everyone,” Bergen said. “We are losing rights because the government is taking them away.”
Board member Jim Moore, who was one of only two board members to vote against the proclamation, said he felt it was unnecessary, as Phase 3 of the Restore Illinois plan started on Friday. He added that he felt the Montgomery County Health Department should have had input into this proclamation as it deals with public health issues.
“I’m not a medical person,” Moore said. “But these are the people who are trained to deal with these types of situations. They do this for us, and I trust them.”
Moore also said that he would not be submitting a per diem pay request for the meeting. Later in the meeting, board member Kirby Furness, who was one of the ones to call the meeting, said he would not take per diem, and encouraged all of the board members, especially the ten who called the meeting, not to take payment. Board member Chuck Graden, who also voted against the proclamation made a motion for none of the board members to get paid for the meeting, but it could not be voted upon because it was not on the posted agenda.
Board member Mark Hughes spoke in favor of the proclamation, hoping it would help so many of the small businesses who are hurting. He added that he knows the county board can’t officially re-open businesses without jeopardizing state funding, but he felt the proclamation would offer support to local businesses.
Board member Donna Yeske also added her support, saying that she felt it was ridiculous that Montgomery County was not open long before Cook County was able to re-open. She said that Valerie Belusko and the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation had been watching grants and doing due diligence to help local businesses.
Board member Jeremy Jones said he was really pushing for local businesses to be opened immediately, and asked the board to consider that. He asked several questions of Montgomery County State’s Attorney Bryant Hitchings on whether or not Hitchings would “go after” businesses who re-open ahead of the governor’s schedule. Hitchings said that his office doesn’t have much authority to “go after” those businesses, but noted there are significant risks to businesses who continue to operate during the pandemic. He said one business had multiple people get sick and initially refused to shut down. The health department reached out to him and he began drafting a quarantine notice before the business voluntarily closed down.
“I can’t say that I’m not going to do anything,” Hitchings said.”
“I just want to make sure there’s not going to be a push to put them in harm’s way,” Jones said.
Board member Glenn Bishop said he felt it was important for the county board to show leadership for businesses.
“We need to get the county board on board to move forward,” he said. “We need to be talking about how we can help with Revolving Loan Fund dollars or tourism dollars. It’s so important to retain our businesses.”
Montgomery County Circuit Clerk Holly Lemons said she felt the proclamation was too late and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“This gives a false sense of security. It’s a feel-good measure at a cost to the taxpayers,” Lemons said. “I support local businesses, but this is a waste of taxpayer money.”
Leitheiser said the idea of a proclamation came as she and Sheriff Rick Robbins were discussing how the county could help local businesses, and trying to think outside the box.
“I fear that many are suffering severe financial hardship in silence,” Leitheiser said. “I believe in the safety of our residents first. They must follow the guidelines. But I’m also concerned about the local economy. It’s time to think outside the box and raise awareness.”
Board member Glenn Savage added his voice of support, and felt the measure is not political posturing, but rather a show of support and readiness by the county board.
Local attorney Tom Devore of Sorento said he’s been representing several area businesses and told the board the proclamation is not a futile exercise.
“Businesses are being controlled by fear,” Devore said. “They need somebody to step up and say we are here to help in any way we can.”
Litchfield Mayor Steve Dougherty said he spoke with State Senator Andy Manar about a bi-partisan effort to move along the re-opening of parts of the state.
“But they need the support of our counties and our communities,” Dougherty said. “This thing should be signed tonight with pride.”
Furness said he supported the measure to support the businesses of Montgomery County.
Board Vice-Chairman Megan Beeler said she supported the measure, but felt it was an injustice to say that someone who did not support the measure did not support the businesses of the county.
“I don’t think there’s a person in this room who doesn’t support local businesses,” Beeler said. “But we need to provide tangible support as opposed to this piece of paper.”
Beeler added that she didn’t appreciate the insinuation that the leadership of the county board had not done enough.
“The work the chairman has put in is well above and beyond,” Beeler said. “To insinuate that nothing is being done is a disservice.”
Before concluding her remarks, she questioned if the municipalities within the county had also taken up such measures as the county board only has jurisdiction over the unincorporated areas.
Although Chris-Mont EMA Director Greg Nimmo was unavailable for the meeting due to the tornado in the Panhandle area, Montgomery County Health Department Administrator Hugh Satterlee provided an update.
Satterlee had high praise for both hospitals in the county who have stepped up to the plate, and encouraged residents to continue to support their efforts by following the guidelines set forth.
“I’m not saying that businesses should not be open, but it takes more than Montgomery County,” Satterlee said. “People work outside the county and people come into the county as well. Everyone is exposed. Are we prepared? To the best of our ability.”
Satterlee said he took offense at Jones’ comments that he would “go after” a business.
“I will not go after anyone or anything,” Satterlee said. “I’m trying to protect the citizens of Montgomery County from themselves. As a community, we need to think of ways to help these people. But we have to work within the box we have been given.”
Satterlee said there are things residents can do to help, like wear masks in public, and he questioned how many of the board members in attendance at the meeting were wearing masks, as they were in a public place.
“We want freedoms. At stores and restaurants, we should wear masks to protect those workers. It would be great for businesses to open up, but I want it to be safely. I can’t tell you that the masks are the magic pill, but does it hurt you to wear it?”
Jones said he felt much of the state guidelines was part of fear mongering and had become political.
Just before the vote, Montgomery County Treasurer Nikki Lohman encouraged the board to think about whether or not they would vote to extend the disaster declaration at their June meeting. The declaration of disaster allows the county to seek reimbursement for funding expended during the pandemic. Lohman felt it sent a mixed message if the board were to approve this proclamation and then once again vote to extend the disaster declaration in June.
The board voted 17-2 to approve the proclamation with Moore and Graden ultimately voting against it. Board members also voted 17-2 with a voice vote to send the measure to Governor JB Pritzker as well as state legislators.
Before adjourning, Board Chairman Evan Young announced the county’s committees would once again begin in-person committee meetings, as those typically do not have more than six in attendance. The next full board meeting of the Montgomery County Board will be on Tuesday evening, June 9, beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Historic Courthouse in downtown Hillsboro.