Attorney General determines NIU Foundation must respond to Freedom of Information Act requests

The determination resolves at least three requests for review of NIU Foundation’s refusals to release information on payments to vendors. It followed an examination of the relationship between NIU and NIU Foundation.

Hover over the top of the PDF to enlarge it and turn pages.

39715-request-for-review-niu-foundation

NIU has sometimes used NIU Foundation to hide purchases and/or sources of funds for purchases. I’ve written about some of them, which you can find here.

‘There was no felonious activity’

The headline is a quote from City of DeKalb’s latest budget meeting, a joint meeting of city council with the Finance Advisory Committee held last week. Alderman Carolyn Morris asked about following up on findings from the TIF forensic assessment . The city manager and the FAC chair responded that no laws were broken, no “felonious activity” occurred, and that was pretty much that.

Let’s take a closer look at the statement that no laws were broken. If a city makes transfers from its TIF fund to its general operating fund to reimburse for staff time spent working on TIF projects, but then inflates the transfers beyond fair reimbursement to “bail out and make the General Fund look better,” as the city manager has aptly put it, these actions run counter to the TIF Act. Criminal penalties may not attach, but committing zero felonies doesn’t equal law-abiding. Taxpayers and taxing bodies got cheated out of returns on TIF projects so city government could enjoy a larger workforce than it could otherwise afford. The loss is real, large, and a result of ignoring rules to work a staff agenda. Don’t let anyone minimize it.

Continue reading ‘There was no felonious activity’

DeKalb city council voted to allow me to participate remotely in order to exclude you

As DeKalb’s city clerk, I’ve been participating in council meetings via teleconferencing since April. Then, during the July 13 committee-of-the-whole meeting, the city council, somewhat bizarrely, took a vote to allow me to teleconference. This post will explain why.

Here’s the clip of part of the mayor’s introduction to the topic. (The first 4-1/2 minutes of the audio were lost and not recovered.)

The money quote:

Accordingly, if a majority of the council allows for the city clerk to attend this meeting, and our following city council meeting, by means other than physical presence, then it may do so without also having to provide the same accommodations to the general public.

So, how did this all start? After looking at the July 13 council meeting agendas, I saw the city was intending to remove remote participation from the general public as an option. Here’s my email to the mayor about it:

city-clerk-remote-participation-email

The city then went right to work to prove me wrong. I think they spent half a day coming up with a reason to offer me the “courtesy” of the Zoom application while barring the public from same. The mayor rushed a vote through council on an item that wasn’t on the agenda — does council even know what it voted for? The vote itself was another subversion of the clerk’s independence of office, an abuse of home rule power, and — since home rule does not supersede the Open Meetings Act — it was a violation of OMA as well.

The one thing they got right, the one teensy bright spot in the latest fiasco, is the acknowledgement that council, not the city manager’s office, has the final say in how to conduct its meetings.

If council wants Zoom for all, Zoom for all must happen.

Let’s get that on the agenda for July 27.

How red do the flags have to be?

The DeKalb city council recently received and filed its fiscal 2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) along with the auditor’s letters and communications to council and management. Although the audit was problematic, the council did not talk about the issues, so we will do it here. First, to summarize:

  • The auditor detected material misstatements in the financial statements.
  • The auditor found deficiencies in internal controls that are supposed to prevent and detect material misstatements.
  • The auditor reported that findings from fiscal 2018 were not corrected in 2019, including mismatches between fee rates charged and the actual rates authorized by ordinance.
  • For the second year in a row, the city has failed to review and properly adjust accounts at year’s end.
Continue reading How red do the flags have to be?

Eliminating Zoom option for city meetings is a terribly backwards thing to do

The Daily Chronicle reports that City of DeKalb is eliminating the remote public participation option for meetings because Illinois is entering Phase 4 of its reopening.

First victim is Human Relations Commission, which during its last meeting enjoyed remote participation via the Zoom application by nearly 90 people. Since the meeting tonight also will not be televised, your only option for real-time participation is to show up in person for an historic discussion of recommendations for better police-community relations.

This is a completely backwards move. Reasons:

— Safety. I have not watched one city meeting in which board members and city staff have successfully practiced COVID-19 precautions. At times I’ve seen no masks, masks pulled down under noses and chins, and failures of social distancing — even people shaking hands. During the last TIF Joint Review Board meeting, members of the public who attended in person had to pass within a couple feet of board members to make their comments.

Another safety issue right now is the weather. Some people have medical issues that prevent them from venturing outdoors in the extreme heat. Pulling Zoom at this point seems ableist.

— Accommodation. The Open Meetings Act states that public meetings must be held at times and in places convenient to the public. Remote public participation is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Act, and turnout when Zoom is used demonstrates there is demand for this option.

— Progress. There is no good reason not to make remote public participation part of the repertoire for conducting meetings in a modern city.

Staff recently made a serious error on the wrong side of the Open Meetings Act by offering a remote participation option for members of the TIF Joint Review Board while barring the general public from the same option; the State’s Attorney’s Office had to step in to correct it. Better decisions could be made if council would stop ceding its authority in these matters to staff, who do not have the same motivation to take the side of the public. Conducting meetings is policy, and policy rightfully belongs with our elected representatives.

Charging the Water Fund for salaries in other departments is a masterpiece of nontransparency

*Note: “Departments” as used in this article should be read as shorthand for “departments, divisions, and offices.”*

Take a look at this budget from DeKalb’s Finance Division:

FY2020-Finance-adopted-budget

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, it’s not. It does not show all the wages the Finance employees get paid. This is a budget that accounts only for the wages coming from the General Fund (the city’s chief operating fund). Finance staff also get paid portions of their wages from the Water Fund.

Total full- and part-time wages this year for Finance people are projected to come to $157,000 more than this Finance budget shows. Likewise, the Water Fund provides part of the compensation for the city manager’s office, Building & Code, HR, IT — even the city council.

Continue reading Charging the Water Fund for salaries in other departments is a masterpiece of nontransparency

TIF forensic assessment tells us how DeKalb operates

The promised forensic audit report (now being called a forensic assessment for some reason) of City of DeKalb’s tax increment financing funds has been released by the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office.

The report details miscalculations, missing documents, and other failures of due diligence occurring across the 10-year period examined.

Much of the fireworks over TIF began when members of the Joint Review Board that oversees it, particularly our school district, began questioning the size of transfers from TIF funds to the General Fund, the city’s chief operating fund, to cover administrative costs.

The report includes the document below, which accounts for 2018’s originally intended $791,744 transfer amount. You can decide for yourself whether all these people were “administering” TIF. DeKalb ultimately settled on $160,000 in transfers for 2018, and for this year has budgeted $15,000, so apparently even the city no longer thinks so.

tif-transfer-to-GF-fy18-2

The good news is the transfers began shrinking in the sunshine. The bad news is the assessment tells you just about everything you need to know about how DeKalb operates, always. If you look at the dates of missing invoices and proofs of service, for example, you see that it’s not just one or two years where missing documents are a problem; it’s spread across the entire 10-year scope of the assessment. It’s true today, too — I can confirm from my “look behind” information requests that documentation related to licensing comes up missing with some regularity.

What the TIF transfers did were to enable the city to retain more staff than it otherwise could have. In the fiscal 2008 budget the transfers came to $350,000 and the stated goal was to reduce them to zero by 2013. This didn’t happen because the Great Recession happened. In 2010, the city was in a hole and the TIF transfers topped $1 million. In target year 2013, transfers helped fuel a nascent hiring spree that ended with another hole in 2018.

The transfers are virtually down to nothing now, but there’s still a chart similar to the TIF transfer chart and it’s also for deciding how much of employees’ wages should come from another city fund — the Water Fund. The assistant city manager recently confirmed for me that about $370,000 is charged to Water to pay employees who work in other city departments/divisions/offices.

More later.

There is no clerk

Cat’s out of the bag. I was going to save this discussion for June, when DeKalb city council takes up the matter of compensation for the next elected terms of offices. Then at last night’s council meeting, following disposal of ordinances, the mayor announced I was going to go to city hall the next day to sign off on the Ventus Project paperwork.

The last time I signed off on ordinances, it was early November, 2019. So I have questions, and I asked them during the “reports and announcements” portion of the meeting.

Here is a partial transcript of the exchange. (I’ll also post a link to the recording.)

Fazekas: The second thing is about your request that I come to city hall to sign off on the Ventus paperwork. I am isolating at this point and for good reason. However, I have some questions. I would like the public to know that I have not signed any ordinances, or resolutions, or contracts, since early November. I have not signed any licenses since mid-December. This is all the natural consequences of the ordinances that were passed in October having to do with the clerk’s position. Over the past few months I’ve seen, more and more, taking from my role, even while I was maintaining my office hours.

Continue reading There is no clerk

Municipal theft protections are not ‘set it and forget it’ and theft can happen here

When it comes to theft of public money in Illinois, Rita Crundwell probably comes to mind for most folks in DeKalb. At one time, however, the name was Orville Enoch Hodge. Hodge, as Illinois auditor of public accounts, stole $6 million in 1950s dollars, the equivalent of about $57 million today – and he accomplished this in a mere four years on the job.

Hodge was the reason for abolishing the office of state auditor and establishing the separate offices of Illinois comptroller and treasurer we have today. When these state-level offices come up for re-election now, we invariably hear calls for consolidating the two to save money, but I’ll bet we wouldn’t if we could manage to remember how much Hodge cost us.

Crundwell, like Hodge, acted as both treasurer and controller of the City of Dixon, meaning she controlled both the money coming in and the money going out. But jackpot-sized hauls aside, municipal theft is common, according to the Illinois Municipal League (IML). IML laid out a series of articles about prevention of municipal theft in the October 2019 volume of its Review Magazine, and about treasurer and controller said, “Separating those positions is a simple and effective control, requiring the numbers to match on both sides of the equation.”

Continue reading Municipal theft protections are not ‘set it and forget it’ and theft can happen here

Taking away the city clerk’s role in checks and balances

Jumping off my last post and recent discussion of it, I want to share a little more of the context in which I currently attempt to function as city clerk in DeKalb.

This time last year, I signed and sealed some contracts and all plats, ordinances, resolutions, and licenses. Hundreds of documents crossed my desk in my first months as DeKalb city clerk. But beginning last spring, following a decision to move a large portion of license processing from the finance division to the city manager’s office, others began signing licenses without my knowledge. These incidents snowballed after the request for my resignation last July, and with the city council’s October 14 passage of amendments to the clerk’s ordinances, the flow of documents slowed, then dried up altogether before the end of 2019.

Except for meeting minutes, I haven’t signed a thing since mid-December.

Continue reading Taking away the city clerk’s role in checks and balances