Highland News Leader

Mayor who broke back and neck in fall wants a fourth term

Joe Michaelis
Joe Michaelis

Highland Mayor Joe Michaelis said he intends to seek re-election next spring. If he wins, he would be the first mayor in the city’s history to win a fourth term.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my 11 years so far as serving as mayor for the community. It’s been a pleasurable experience. I like being responsive to people’s needs. Everyday is a different challenge,” said Michaelis, who along with C. H. Stocker and Lester Hug are the only mayors to have served more than eight years.

“This is a special community. We come together in so many different ways to help people who are in need,” Michaelis said. “The responsibility of the mayor is to be responsive to whoever comes to you with concerns. You have to return phone calls and return emails. If they come to you, it’s a major concern to them and that’s all that matters. Anyone that serves in government needs to focus in on that word: responsive.”

Michaelis graduated from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in 1974 with a degree in secondary education, and served 30 years as a police officer in Highland, including a stint as chief.

Michaelis first ran for mayor in 2005 and won overwhelmingly. In the two subsequent elections, he ran unopposed.

“Highland is a special community, and everyone here knows that. To serve as the mayor has been quite an honor, and I’m very humbled by serving the three terms that I’ve served so far,” Michaelis said.

As of right now, no one has announced intentions to challenge Michaelis this time, but candidates don’t have to file paperwork to be on the ballot until Nov. 28.

Touting accomplishments

During his first three terms, Michaelis set a number of goals for himself, finding a new home for the food pantry and improving the quality of water at Silver Lake. But he said the thing in which he has taken the most pride was the completion of the city’s peripheral route.

“I had a number of initiatives when I decided to run in 2005 for mayor. At the top of the list was the peripheral route,” Michaelis said. “It had been discussed for many years, but had never gotten up and going.”

Michaelis said there were a lot of hurdles to jump in order to get the road built, and it took help from the entire community.

“It took us about 10 years to accomplish it,” he said. “I remember the day that we dedicated it. It was a feeling of accomplishment, but it wasn’t just Mark Latham (Highland’s city manager) and I. When you have a project that big, there are many people involved to make that successful.”

Veterans Honor Parkway, the northeast quadrant of the peripheral route, links Troxler Avenue to Iberg Road; it opened in August 2015.

Frank Watson Parkway, which links the intersection of U.S. Highway 40 and Hemlock on the western edge of the city with Koepfli Lane at Troxler Avenue and Illinois Route 143, was the first phase of the peripheral route. It opened several years earlier.

Michaelis counted upgrades to the city’s sewer system as a major accomplishment.

“When we would have heavy rain, we got lots of calls for backed-up sewer lines in basements, so we invested quite a bit of money to improve the really bad sewer lines,” he said. “Those hadn’t been addressed for many, many years. There’s nothing worse for residents than having your basement flood.”

Overcoming hardships

Political success has been intertwined with personal hardship over Michaelis’ tenure in office.

His wife, Ethel, passed away in July 2015.

Just a few months before, in January 2015, Michaelis broke his back and neck when he fell down his basement stairs. He underwent several hours of surgery. Doctors thought he may never walk again.

“It was an accident that was very difficult to overcome when you’re classified as a quadriplegic. That’s a long hard road to come back from,” Michaelis said.

He proved doctors wrong. With rigorous therapy, Michaelis was able to walk again without assistance, though he now often carries a cane.

“I did everything that I could possibly do to get as close to what I once was,” he said. “That’s going to be a daily thing for the rest of my life.”

During his recovery, Michaelis said he drew strength from the hundreds of get well cards, phone calls and emails from Highland residents

“I feel bad that I wasn’t here for that time period serving as mayor, but I think you learn a lot about life when you go through a tragedy like that,” he said. “You realize how important people are in your life. The cards and letters of support and emails was just overwhelming. I read each and every one of them and it gave me a lot of inspiration and determination to fight with everything that I have.”

Initiatives for a fourth term

If elected, Michaelis said he his No. 1 priority is fighting flood maps proposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). New working maps from the agency would incorporate more businesses and residents in areas considered to be “high risk” for flooding. Such a designation, if ultimately approved, could require property owners to purchase costly flood insurance.

“We need to aggressively address the proposed FEMA map for the flood plain. It’s going to affect a lot of residents and businesses and the ramifications — if it stays the way it is — are going to be a burden on residents and businesses. We will oppose their present flood plain map.”

He said he also wants to focus on helping out the businesses in the city.

“It’s extremely difficult to bring in major business into a community in Illinois. I don’t think Illinois is very friendly to major industry for a number of reasons,” he said. “We need to maintain the industry, the production, the bigger businesses we have here. I’d like to work with the schools and industries to train the people in those specific categories. Our businesses are experiencing a high turnover rate.”

Michaelis said he would like the city to find partners to offer some kind of training areas of production like in welding, soldering, or putting components together.

Michaelis said another issue he wants to tackle is the erosion in Silver Lake and building a new roundabout at Iberg and Broadway.

“I want to keep progressing with the erosion problem in Silver Lake. That’s huge. That’s our drinking water, and during the last 12 years, that’s been an initiative of mine,” Michaelis said. “A lot has been done to have a better quality of water in the lake. It’s going to take time, but we can’t stand still. That has to be something we aggressively tackle until the problem is solved.”

As for a third roundabout in the city, Michaelis said: “We are in contact with IDOT to put a roundabout at the intersection of Broadway and Iberg. We have had a fatality at that intersection a few years ago. It’s a dangerous intersection. We need to do everything we can to put a roundabout there to keep people safe.”

Who Else is Seeking Re-Election?

Michaelis isn’t the only city official seeking re-election.

Councilwoman Peggy Bellm and Councilman Rick Frey are both wanting to retain their current seats.

Frey would be seeking his second term.

“I want to keep things the way they are,” Frey said. “I want to keep our city safe and up to date. Things in Highland are great right now.”

Bellm has served on the council since 2008. She was originally appointed by Michaelis to fill a vacancy, the was elected in her own right in 2009 and again in 2013.

“The city is doing well, but you can always improve,” Bellm said. “We aren’t in dire straights, like other municipalities, and that’s something I’d like to maintain.”

Barb Bellm, the current city clerk, said she’s also interested in running for re-election.

“I’ve been doing this since 1997,” Bellm said. “I like to participate in city government.”

The lone incumbent opting not to seek re-election is Dennis Foehner, Highland’s city treasurer. Foehner said this is going to be his final term.

“It’s not a difficult job, but 12 years is enough,” he said. “I’m retired and want to slow down. I’ll still come to City Council meetings.”

How to run for city office

What positions are up for election? Petitions for election to the offices of Highland mayor, city treasurer, city clerk, and two council member seats, all with four-year terms, are available at City Hall, 1115 Broadway. Highland has a four-person City Council. The two seats up for election are currently held by council members Peggy Bellm and Rick Frey.

How do I get my name on the ballot? In order for a potential candidate’s name to be placed on the ballot, petitions must have signatures of 13 voters registered within the Highland city limits. The election petition filing period runs from 8 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 21 to 5 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 28. Petitions are filed at City Hall.

When is the election? The consolidated general election will be on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. However, if three or more candidates file to run for mayor, clerk and/or treasurer or five or more candidates file to run for City Council, a primary election would be held first on Tuesday, Feb. 28. The primary election would trim the field of potential candidates to two for mayor, clerk and/or treasurer and four for City Council.