State of the Blog

Hello there.

I’m one of the new mods/writers for the City Barbs Blog selected to fill in for Lynn Fazekas after she took the office of City Clerk. While some readers already know me, I thought it would be best to introduce myself.

So, firstly, I’m an NIU alum who majored in computer science. Yes, sadly I didn’t major in journalism. But if it makes you feel any better, I once pursued an associate degree in philosophy before I realized that it wasn’t going to make me money any time soon. On the plus side, there is likely to be data in posts of mine if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ve written several letters to the editor and attended/watched some city council meetings in the past. Lynn would tell you she picked me because of my commitment to the truth, but I’m doing this because I’m easily bribed with food (just kidding, sorta). What else? I’m an Air Force veteran where I worked in metrology; I have interests in the 1st Amendment, OMA, FOIA, local history, and education; and I used to catch plagiarism in computer programming courses for a living when I worked as a teaching assistant, so I can pay quite a bit attention to detail.

I’ve been conversing with Lynn and Bessie over the past few weeks to get an understanding of the forum rules, the origins and the role of the blog, current issues, etc. while we transition the responsibility of running this gig. Please forgive us for any delays as Bessie is still learning how to use the newfangled Facebook thing, and I’ve been somewhat apprehensive to act independently and make snap judgments. We appreciate your patience while we try to get things settled, and I can assure that all of us have the same desire to maintain a forum of political discussion where everyone feels welcome to participate. We do have some posts planned for this month but let us know if there’s anything you’d like us to focus on.

I also want to say something about the State of the City Address held last week. I had planned to attend and had taken the day off from work, but I was turned away because they didn’t have a card reader at the door. While it has been pointed out that the address was recorded and posted online, the event itself was nevertheless one of breaking bread and a mingling of minds. There was more there than the statements of a couple government officials, there were conversations – ones of not just economic importance but social and cultural as well. As a citizen journalist who wishes to be informed of matters so that I might in turn better facilitate discussion, I am now less able to do so. And considering the relatively steep price of the event and the fact that this was done prior to the official State of the City Address, the impression given (hopefully inadvertently) is that the interests of the community at large are less of a priority than solely business interests. In the future, the City should make every effort to avoid barriers which prevent all members of the public from listening and contributing to such conversations, and if it wishes to continue holding these events with the Chamber of Commerce, then I would recommend hosting it in the commons to avoid even the semblance of impropriety.

Clerking and blogging

On Monday, unlikely as it may sound, DeKalb city council might vote to appoint me to the office of city clerk.

No matter how it turns out, the fact remains that Mayor Jerry Smith has placed under consideration a person who can be a vocal critic of this administration. That takes a bit of nerve. I was trying to think of the last mayor who might have done something similar, and came up with Mayor Frank Van Buer, who appointed the redoubtable Mac McIntyre to the city’s Finance Advisory Committee 10 years ago. Let’s give due respect, because this type of inclusion doesn’t happen every day.

What would happen with the blog? Contrary to current rumors, giving up the blog is not a condition of the clerk appointment — at least not overtly. The actual question was, “How do you reconcile the clerk’s position with the blog?” and my answer was, “I don’t.”

Whatever success I’ve enjoyed as a blogger has depended in large part upon people’s not being afraid to talk to me. My assumption is that effectiveness as the city clerk involves the same level of trust.

If appointed, then, City Barbs blog would go into other hands or on hiatus, and a trusted group of moderators would manage the Facebook group.

But maybe there would be clerkblog.

DeKalb’s financial forecast through 2023

You need to know what that hole is, even if you can’t solve it right now. ~Larry Kujovich, Executive Partners, Inc., addressing the DeKalb city council on strategic planning (2013).

Last week, DeKalb’s finance department shared an operating budget forecast through 2023 with the finance advisory committee. Having obtained a copy, I’ve created a graphic to show operating fund (General Fund) highlights.*

Continue reading DeKalb’s financial forecast through 2023

Five reasons to slow down expansion plans for DeKalb’s in-house administrative hearings

There’s city council support for a Committee of the Whole meeting to air issues with the city attorney’s project to expand the types of ordinance violations the city will hear in-house. I think the CoW is going to happen, and I’ll keep you posted.

If so, it’s an excellent development, and shows council’s responsiveness to constituents’ concerns. Perhaps we’ll soon see the end of the pattern of staff’s working on pet projects in secret, then bursting onto the scene in create-a-crisis mode.

Here are five considerations for discussion.

1. The circuit court’s deadline does not have to be our deadline. If the court decides to conduct its ordinance violations process at the courthouse instead of city hall as of July 1, then people will have to travel to Sycamore for a while. If the court changes the day of the week that it conducts the hearings, people will have to change their calendars. These logistical inconveniences are not good enough reasons to risk errors. To get the ordinances right, we need to set our own pace.

2. This is the city manager’s job. It’s the city manager who oversees DeKalb’s administrative hearing procedure, via appointments to the city’s ordinance enforcement division. The new manager should have an opportunity to provide his or her perspective, including an opinion on the scope of the program. We also have no idea so far about the financial consequences of adding permanent staff, not to mention our continually increasing dependence on punishing people to fill budget holes.

3. We must eliminate the appearance of conflicts of interest. Why is the city attorney driving this initiative? It feeds the perception that he is the de facto city manager, and also that he is serving his own interests by expanding his role. This project must not proceed until he is put back, and seen to be put back, into his proper place in the organization. Continue reading Five reasons to slow down expansion plans for DeKalb’s in-house administrative hearings

County support of Frieders’ initiative?

So as we were saying the other day, DeKalb city attorney Dean Frieders made a pitch for in-house adjudication of local ordinance violations via administrative hearings.

To be clear, DeKalb already does administrative hearings, but it’s limited to violations related to the administrative towing ordinance, parking citations, and city-issued licenses. So what we’re talking about is an expansion in what DeKalb would handle itself, as opposed to using the circuit court process.

Frieders said the chief circuit court judge and state’s attorney support the changes. I’m sure that’s true and it’s fine. These officials get to run their offices the way they see fit. But county board members contacted by citizens since the presentation, including members of the Law and Justice Committee, hadn’t heard of it. They should have, because budgeting. Continue reading County support of Frieders’ initiative?

The hidden agenda item

At the end of last week’s council meeting in DeKalb, city attorney Dean Frieders presented an argument for in-house adjudication of ordinance violations. Currently, DeKalb conducts administrative hearings on very minor ordinance violations at city hall once a week as an administrative branch of the circuit court. Frieders’ plan would detach DeKalb from the county-level judiciary, and DeKalb would handle more types of ordinance violations than it does now.

This would be major, right? You could reasonably expect the changes to affect ordinances, staffing and budget, with impacts to individuals and businesses. Yet the item did not appear on the agenda for the meeting, because Frieders made the pitch during the part of the meeting listed as “Reports – Communications” (“Reports”).

“Reports” does not individually specify what to expect, because nobody knows. It’s essentially a “Good of the Order” that involves non-actionable items such as announcements, updates and general comments on the conduct of city business.

Doing it this way also provides no opportunity for public comment.

So what you wouldn’t expect is use of “Reports” to introduce a major initiative as if it were a routine progress report on a course of action already publicly approved. Yet that appears to be what happened. I’ve talked to at least a half-dozen fellow city watchers and nobody remembers any public discussion of in-house adjudication. It’s also not on any city agenda posted this year that I can find.

Where this item actually belonged, then, was “New Business,” with its own subject line and its own explanatory memo stuffed into the backup packet. People actually do skim city agendas to find and research items of importance, and in this case they couldn’t because it wasn’t there.

I have no firm idea why they did it this way, but transparency it ain’t. Continue reading The hidden agenda item

We don’t need a code enforcement SWAT team

DeKalb city council will discuss its condemnation procedures at committee of the whole Tuesday, May 29, beginning 5 pm. Proposed changes are here.

What I like about the proposal are the addition of follow-up steps: to gather contact information on residential tenants for ongoing notification purposes, and to assist evacuees to relocate.

One thing that council should not do is put the contrived “emergency condemnation” procedures on the books. What went wrong with the last condemnation is not that current procedures are inadequate, but that the city didn’t follow them. When inspectors found problems with Lord Stanley’s last fall, they should have re-inspected them, warned them, penalized them, called in the county, and notified everybody properly. They did none of these things. Instead, the city ambushed them with what looks now to have been a fake emergency. The fiasco was a standout for its utter lack of due process, and to put a seal of approval on this invention of “emergency condemnation” would only encourage future abuses.

Even to consider a rewrite of these codes is bizarre. DeKalb has adopted the International Building Code for handling these matters. What’s good enough for the rest of the country will work for us if we follow it.

The Hooplah in Elmhurst

hooplah buttonsSometimes it helps perspective to check out what other communities are doing. DeKalb’s not the only municipality with code enforcement that sometimes looks inconsistent or arbitrary. I’ve been following such a story in Elmhurst for more than a year.

A documentary about the Elmhurst controversy is titled “Hooplah” and residents have adopted the same name for their activities, which primarily involve support for a hoop house ordinance but also end up contributing to the larger cause of good governance.

A hoop house is a passive-solar sheltering structure that helps a gardener extend a growing season. It functions kind of like a greenhouse, except that it is a temporary structure that does not have a foundation, and uses flexible plastic sheeting over plastic or metal “hoops” instead of rigid walls.

nicoles hoop house

Here are two examples of hoop houses. The one above is gone, because City of Elmhurst made the owners take it down after a couple of months. The one below, also in Elmhurst, has reportedly stayed put continuously for 10 years. What’s the difference: size, anchorage, lot coverage? Nobody knows. Guidelines and requirements don’t exist — not yet anyway.

a neighbors permanent hoop house

Hooplah started when Nicole Virgil and her family decided to take their raised-bed organic gardening to the next level by growing as close to year-round as possible. The plan involved assembling a hoop house in the fall and taking it down in the spring. It is something they assumed was an accessory structure to gardening as is, say, a shed. But then a neighbor complained about it, and City of Elmhurst forced the Virgils to take it down in February 2017. Continue reading The Hooplah in Elmhurst

Prevailing wage verification is up to us

Perhaps you’ve seen the big inflatable rat downtown, or read the article published by the Daily Chronicle that explained the current union protest of John Pappas’ hiring of nonunion painters to finish the Cornerstone development project.

The reporter didn’t say whether he confirmed nonunion hires, though the union seems sure. Legally there’s nothing wrong with hiring nonunion, as long as the developer pays prevailing wage since he is receiving public money for the project.

A rep for the union has told me they are looking into potential prevailing wage issues.

To be clear, if Mr. Pappas is using nonunion labor, it doesn’t automatically mean he is not paying the workers prevailing wage. However, since hiring nonunion is one way to save money, to me it’s a good enough reason to verify the payroll. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, we have three million reasons, the amount of the TIF development incentive, to verify that Mr. Pappas is satisfying the conditions of his contract with City of DeKalb.

Just don’t ask the city to check up on him. Continue reading Prevailing wage verification is up to us