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Early arrival becomes first baby of the new year at Meeker Memorial Hospital
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Since their first child arrived five weeks early, Jill and Aaron Traut did all they could to prepare for an early-arriving second child.

That was a good thing.

Gathered with family for an early celebration of Jill’s birthday the evening of Jan. 1, nature took its course.

“We were actually having a birthday cake at my in-laws, and that’s when my water broke,” said Jill, who was still three weeks from her due date. “It was like, ‘It’s time to go!’”

For some, this might have been a frightening or at least nerve-racking experience. But given their experience with the birth of their first child, Hayes, three years ago, they were ready. The Trauts already had a hospital bag packed and in the car, and they were soon on the road to deliver what would become the first baby of the new year at Meeker Memorial Hospital.

They fog-shrouded drive from Cold Spring to Litchfield took a little longer than it might have under clear conditions, but they arrived at Meeker Memorial at about 11 p.m.

A little more than an hour later — 12:08 a.m. Jan. 2 — Nash Aaron Traut was born, measuring in at 6 pounds, 13 ounces and 19 ½ inches long.

Waiting just long enough to share his mother’s birthday, but arriving in plenty of time to be the hospital’s first baby of the new year.

“It’s going well,” Jill Traut said during a phone interview from her rural Cold Spring home earlier this week. “It’s fun.”

She explained that 3-year-old Hayes was “still working at” his role of big brother, because “sharing the attentions with Mom and Dad with somebody new has been a learning curve, but he’s doing good.”

The Trauts also expressed appreciation for the Meeker Memorial Hospital staff and their experience at the hospital. COVID-19 restrictions meant only Aaron could be at the hospital with his wife during and after the birth.

“It was kind of unfortunate, but it ended up being just fine,” she said. “Aaron and I talked after we left (the hospital), and we both said it was awesome. There’s just something about the nurses, the staff. The whole experience went really well for us.”

Jill Traut grew up in Meeker County, and when she became pregnant the first time, the couple chose Meeker Memorial Hospital. That decision was due in part to their wish to have a “small hospital” experience. But it also was a geographic decision, because they lived in rural Cold Spring, while Jill worked in Hutchinson, and Aaron, a certified public accountant, worked in St. Cloud, so Litchfield represented a kind of midpoint.

That plan changed, however, when she went into labor five weeks early — too early to be delivered at MMH. So, Hayes was born at the St. Cloud Hospital, which Jill Traut said was a good experience, too.

But Meeker Memorial offered a different kind of comfort level for her, especially her physican, Dr. Cassandra Bulau.

“She was actually my bus buddy,” Traut said, recalling riding the bus to school in Litchfield, when young students were paired with older student “buddies” to ease apprehension. “That’s kind of a fun connection we have.

“I’ve been seeing her since she started her practice in Litchfield,” Traut added. “I’ve known Dr. Bulau my whole life, so it was nice that she could be the one to deliver for me. Thank goodness she lives relatively close (to the hospital) or she might not have made it.”

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Trail grant application sparks Litchfield City Council debate over trees
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A trail that would connect Litchfield’s downtown to Lake Ripley might be welcomed by many.

But if building that trail would result in the loss of trees, the answer is “not so fast” — at least for some City Council members.

The Council approved Monday, on a 5-2 vote, an application for a Transportation Alternatives Program grant, which would provide funding for construction of a 10-foot wide trail that would run along the west side of Sibley Avenue, from Commercial Street on the north to Pleasure Drive on the south.

The city applied for the grant in 2020, as well, but did not receive any funding. However, it was encouraged to apply again this year, according to a memo from City Engineer Chuck DeWolf.

If its application is accepted, the city could receive $239,000 to assist in covering the estimated $615,300 cost of the Sibley Avenue trail. Minnesota Department of Transportation would cover about $231,000 of the trail cost, DeWolf said, leaving the city to cover the remaining $145,300.

Those details, however, were quickly forgotten as Councilor Darlene Kotelnicki forcefully objected to a plan that could mean the removal of several trees from the South Sibley Avenue entrance to the city.

“We’re not going to start cutting down trees in this community,” Kotelnicki said.

She was joined in her objection by Councilor Betty Allen, who said, “I can’t cut down all these trees.”

DeWolf’s memo indicated that 14 large trees on the west side of Sibley Avenue would have to be removed to make room for the wider path, which would replace the sidewalk currently in place. Six large trees between the existing sidewalk and curb might be unaffected by the path. In addition 16 smaller trees could be left in their current location, or possibly relocated to the center of the new boulevard.

In several areas where large trees in the boulevard would have to be removed, DeWolf wrote, there are larger existing trees on the west side of the existing sidewalk that would remain in place.

Councilor Eric Mathwig, who said he and his wife enjoy biking around town, spoke in favor of the path. As a resident of the north side of town, he said, he appreciated the fact that it would provide a “very safe” way for cyclists and pedestrians to get from the north of Litchfield to Lake Ripley.

“You can plant more trees and they will be here for the next generation,” Mathwig said. “I’m all for trees, but they’re replaceable.”

That did little to dissuade Kotelnicki’s objections, however. She said the city should at least gather public input before making a decision that could so dramatically affect the city’s appearance. And, she said, if paths were so important, there were other areas of town that seemed a higher priority for a 10-foot path than Sibley Avenue.

“I understand the sensitivities with the trees,” City Administrator Dave Cziok said, as he tried to lend perspective to the Sibley Avenue trail idea, which came about during discussions with MnDOT in 2018 about upgrading sidewalks to meet ADA standards.

That discussion converged with others that the Safe Routes to Schools committee and the Meeker County Trails committee were having about connectivity and safety that could be offered by an expanded trail system.

DeWolf also said that applying for the grant did not mean the city had to accept the funds or go forward with the trail project. But the city did need to act quickly to meet the application deadline.

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Heated discussion leaves Litchfield City Council no closer to golf club resolution
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The new year dawned with Litchfield City Council facing a nagging, old problem.

What to do with the city-owned golf course and clubhouse?

A lengthy discussion among council members — sandwiched around a pointed critique and explanation of operations by a member of Litchfield Golf Club Inc. — ended with a Council vote to clear up old debts and continue looking for solutions to a years-old problem.

Based on what Peter Kormanik, who represented Golf Club Inc., said during the Jan. 4 meeting, it could be a bumpy path to a resolution.

Near the end of a several-minute monologue, during which he said the city — while threatening to take golf club operations away from GCI because of poor management — was actually not fulfilling its obligations, Kormanik likened discussions to marital difficulties.

“You call this a separation,” Kormanik said. “I call it a bad divorce. Because that’s what’s happening.”

The City Council approved, on a 5-2 vote, a $62,500 payment to Golf Club Inc., the total of five years’ worth of operating allocations due the nonprofit organization that runs the clubhouse under terms of a 2013 lease agreement.

The lease calls for the city to make an annual payment to GCI equal to $75 for each golf club membership sold in a given season. Since 2013, the city has not made five of eight payments. The city paid $15,800 in 2013, while the 2014 ($13,850) and 2016 ($14,475) allocations were forgiven by GCI.

Those details were shared in a memo from Council members Eric Mathwig and Betty Allen, which was included in the meeting agenda packet. And while the memo answered some questions, it also left open several others that Council members asked throughout the discussion:

Why didn’t the city make the annual payments? Why were 2014 and 2016 allocations forgiven, but not 2015? Whose responsibility was it to ensure payments were made? Should GCI have billed the city for the allocations? When will a tenant be found for the clubhouse restaurant, formerly operated as Peter’s on Lake Ripley?

Although she is one of two members on the golf course negotiating committee, Allen objected to the $62,500 payment, as did Darlene Kotelnicki.

“I cannot consider this,” Allen said. “It’s been anything but a transition, and it certainly hasn’t been smooth.” She added that the negotiations indicated to her that there were “toes stepped on … feelings hurt.”

Mayor Keith Johnson asked if discussions with GCI had included an “exit” for the nonprofit.

“We talked about … maybe look at the city taking over the entire operation out there,” Johnson said.

Mathwig responded that discussions with GCI were focused on the financial terms of the 2013 lease agreement.

“I guess I’m really confused,” Kotelnicki said. “I thought we were supposed to come up with a termination agreement.”

Kotelnicki said if the payment was to be part of moving forward, and terms of the 2013 agreement were to remain, she thought a new, more detailed agreement was needed for clarity. She added that she still had questions about sale of property adjacent to the golf course, for which the city was negotiating with GCI, as well as just how much the city had spent on renovation of the clubhouse and other improvements at the course in 2020.

“The agreement has to be done complete …” she said. “That’s to respect each side.”

Council member Ron Dingmann agreed there were some points of confusion and contention through the years regarding golf course management. However, the city has a “contractual obligation” to pay the $62,500 in membership allocation.

“Let’s face it, the 2013 agreement wasn’t the best agreement,” Dingmann said, explaining that he served on the city’s Finance Committee during those negotiations. “We were at a standstill with Golf Inc. Finally, (it was) at the 11th hour, when Golf Inc. accepted our agreement.

“I would like to see the current agreement terminated and work out something better,” Dingmann added. “I think in order for us to complete our contractual obligation, we need to terminate this agreement and start over.”

Johnson said he could support making the $62,500 allocation payment, if he knew what Golf Club Inc.’s intentions were.

“Please discuss where you’re going with this 2013 agreement … consciously thinking about what (GCI is) doing with this money you’re getting every year,” Johnson said. “You have to find a tenant, and you have to decide how this restaurant is going to be run. This is on your shoulders.”

It was at that point Kormanik, who attended the meeting with two other Golf Club Inc. members, asked to address the Council, and members unanimously consented.

A former City Council member himself, Kormanik expressed disappointment in the way golf club discussions had progressed.

“We’ve shown you folks what we have spent our money on,” Kormanik said, adding that the GCI board has discussed using the allocation for continuing its adult golf leagues, starting a junior golf league, scholarships, assisting the high school golf program, and other things. “People say they want to know, ‘what is Golf Club Inc. going to do if we get our money’ … It is our money. If you want to keep stealing it from us, yes, you can.”

Kormanik said that Golf Club Inc. has not stopped trying to find a tenant for the restaurant, but that “it’s kind of hard to get somebody to come out and take a look at a business that isn’t there.”

He seemed to reject the idea posed by some that the restaurant be converted to a “catering kitchen,” because “it’s not what people in this town want.

“We’ve been doing a lot,” Kormanik said of GCI. “At the same time, we’re not sure what the city wants us to do. We’ve yet to see a plan. They keep telling us they’re taking it from us.”

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen