Forget What You’ve Heard about Steve Kapitan’s Resignation as City Clerk

***Update 5:45 p.m.*** The Facebook discussion on this post is here.

I’m going to ask you to set aside for a few moments everything you’ve heard about why Steve Kapitan resigned as DeKalb city clerk in 2012. Instead, I’d like for you to entertain the possibility that he was a casualty of a DeKalb city government intent on exchanging its elected city clerk for an appointed clerk for quite some time.

Consider these events:

  • 2006: City council approves a referendum to ask residents to switch to an appointed clerk. Voters reject the proposal with 62.53% of the vote.

  • 2009: Kapitan wins election as city clerk.

  • 2010: Council eliminates the full-time deputy clerk from the FY2011 budget, leaving Kapitan with a staff of one part-timer.

  • 2012: Kapitan resigns following a meeting at the state’s attorney’s office for alleged Open Meetings Act violations involving meeting minutes that are not prepared by deadline. Council votes to change ordinances involving the clerk, including providing supervision of the office and slashing compensation to $5,000 per year. Council approves another referendum to switch to an appointed clerk that is again soundly defeated, this time with 70.49% of the vote.

  • 2013: Liz Peerboom is elected to a four-year term as city clerk, but she resigns in September 2014, describing a hostile work environment in which she is not allowed her own office or even her own desk.

  • I once emailed a deputy clerk a photo of a desk made of cardboard that looked better than the banged-up plywood number she had to use. We were making a joke of it, but the neglect was actually quite stunning when you consider that the office was the face of DeKalb for many members of the public (back before the city hall second floor became the Fortress of Solitude).

    If you want to get a handle on the power struggle exposed by these events, you have to go no farther than understanding what the administrators at City of DeKalb want from the clerk, which is the same as what regular readers of this blog know they want from everyone: to be free of reminders about pesky rules. It is a fact that a city clerk who is elected does not have a boss, and does not have to sign and seal every document placed in front of him or her.

    Let me throw a “what if” scenario into the mix as an example. As it happens, the day before Steve Kapitan resigned was the day that the city issued a liquor license on the same day the application was brought in. In order to achieve that, they had to ignore several procedures contained in the liquor code. Both mayor and city clerk had to sign the license.

    Now imagine if an independently-elected clerk cared about the rules and refused to sign. Replacing the elected clerk with a city employee greatly reduces the risk of this happening.

    But back to verifiable facts. These include episodes of blatant hypocrisy. Exhibit A is the city’s claim that it did everything it could to support Kapitan, which is preposterous on its face because the one thing that would have helped was to restore the deputy they had taken away. Exhibit B is the claim that they had to push Kapitan out over fears that his failure to complete meeting minutes in a timely manner would place a terrible legal liability on the city, but a) to my knowledge, nobody in DeKalb has ever been prosecuted over an Open Meetings Act violation; b) even if somebody were prosecuted for an OMA violation, the fine is no big deal for a city; and c) the city has been found to be in violation of OMA several times since then for missing deadlines on posting meeting minutes, and you don’t see anybody clutching their pearls over it.

    And they continue to play this way, to get their way. Here’s how Liz Peerboom described daily work experiences as clerk upon her resignation:

    I knew that I would have battles, but I could not have imagined how much I would have to battle every day. They break all kinds of rules and tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about when I raise a concern. They don’t like me because I call them on it.

    How I wish that Liz would have gone public with her battles instead of suffering in silence. I do believe that many of the 70.49% of voters who were savvy enough to retain an elected clerk would have rallied around her.

    Fortunately, though, there are other opportunities for rallying, which I’ll share with you soon.

    Previous posts in this series:

    City of DeKalb and Its Incompatible Offices

    DeKalb’s Voters Think City Clerk is an Elected Office. DeKalb’s Ordinances Say Otherwise