The Shelbyville City Council had a proposed question for a March referendum in front of them at their meeting on Monday night. After an open discussion, no action was taken and it was tabled until the final meeting before the year-end deadline.

Various Shelbyville City Council members and mayors have had a tough time, over the last 15 years, making a decision about what to do with the Chautauqua Building at Forest Park.

The current council has finally decided to use a referendum to have the voters make the decision. However, it is a non-binding advisory resolution.  

The proposed question was: “Shall the City of Shelbyville protect from demolition and preserve the Chautauqua Building, for use and access as a public property suitable for functions and events, at a projected repair cost of $750,000-$800,000 with no projected tax increase to cover repair costs if the cost of demolition to remove the Chautauqua Building is projected at $60,000?”

Based on what the voters decide in March, the council, supposedly, will then move forward.

According to Mayor Jeff Johnson, the referendum question was crafted by City Attorney Jack Kiley and City Clerk Rachel Wallace with input from commissioners. The hope was it would be modified somewhat on Monday night and then passed. That did not happen.

City Attorney Jack Kiley said that they have to pass a resolution to get the referendum question on the ballot. The referendum is a non-binding advisory referendum targeted for the March 17 primary ballot.

After the reading of the question, Commisioner Martha Firnhaber said she wasn't sure the phrase "suitable for functions and events"  would be possible given the numbers before them.

"The idea is for it to be restored to the events that were there 20 years ago," Kiley said. "There were no bathrooms then."

"The senior center has restrooms to accommodate," said Commissioner Mark Shanks. "It's a rustic building. It was never state of the art. We are looking at putting it back in the condition it was before."

Commissioner Debe Wright asked if the question needs to say where the money comes from for it.

Shanks said, "It would come from general funds and funds on hand."

Then conversation at the meeting drifted to the same old arguments about the Chautauqua, instead of sticking to the specific referendum question.

"If we take money for this, we don't have money for other things," Commissioner Firnhaber said. "Is the stage safe for use?"

Shanks replied, "We want to put new decking on it. It was usable for 11 years."

Shanks then shifted to the numbers listed in the referendum question.

 "The Chautauqua Committee does have $30,000 and maybe $5,000 more," Shanks said. "These numbers (in the question) are set higher than previous numbers."

"I'm concerned with doing this piece meal, open-ended, instead of one contractor coming in and doing it." said Commissioner Thom Schafer. "Do it all or don't do it, at all."

"I agree completely," said Firnhaber. "Is it, do enough to keep it standing, or to be truly usable?"

"It's an attraction," Schafer said. "But we won't get a return on its usage from people just coming and looking at it? We have to change things we do with that building."

Schafer then brought up changes, like allowing alcohol use.

"We need to see how it's used," Schafer said. "It also requires someone to take over operation of the building and booking events. We were talking about $400,000 without a tax increase, but this amount is now double. This is non-binding, but if it passes it could be our job to come up with the money."

Shanks countered, "This makes the building usable. I question the $750,000 being that high. We need to ask the public, if they want to save it."

Kiley reiterated, "We need to have a question we can agree on."

The question says there will be no tax increase. However, concern was that if the voters decided to restore the Chautauqua, it may come to that at some point.

"If there would be a tax increase, doesn't it have to be approved by the public," Johnson said. 

"Yes," said City Attorney Jack Kiley. "We could include a phrase, any tax increase has to be approved by voters."

"Should we make suggestions to change the question," Johnson said. "And, then vote at the next meeting?"

"What we proposed is adequate," Kiley said. 

Thom Schafer agreed, "The essence is there."

"I am not a fan of the phrase 'no projected tax increase'," said Firnhaber. "Because we don't know."

Discussion then turned away again from the referendum to the possibility of electrical work on the Chautauqua and siding work.

Mayor Johnson tried to bring the discussion back to the referendum, "Do we want to take action? Do we have to table it or do we have a general agreement on wording?

Schafer said he felt comfortable with the proposed question and Shanks said it was fair.  In the end, no action was taken on the question. 

"Item 6 will be continued to the next meeting," said Mayor Johnson.

The Shelbyville City Council will meet for the final time this year on Monday, December 16. The referendum question must be approved then for the March 17, 2020 ballot, or the referendum will have to wait another year, until November 2020 ballot.    

John Curtis can be reached at

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