DeKalb city clerk Jenny Johnson does not know where the official seal of the city is located, or whether it is secure.
We found this out last Saturday, when she held a meeting to inform citizens of her current role, and to gather information about what we envision for the future. A dozen citizens attended, most of us members of the informal citizens’ committee called Citizens for Restoration of the DeKalb City Clerk.
Ms. Johnson explained that because of her part-time status, which she says is forced by low compensation of $5,000 per year, she felt compelled to transfer her authority over the city seal to a deputy clerk to avoid being continually on call to sign/certify/attest.
Unfortunately, the people she’s deputized are actually employees of the city manager’s office. Essentially, then, the city seal is under the control of the city manager’s office, a non-transparent arrangement that brings a slew of questions to bear about the custody and handling of official documents and use of the seal.
Yes, we’re talking about the loss of real-life “checks and balances” and what that might mean.
Here’s an example of that loss from last year that’s still fairly fresh in my mind: the city’s contract for a new website with CivicPlus, signed by the mayor on February 11, 2015, differs in language from the version that appeared in the February 9 council meeting agenda packet.
I originally assumed that council was handed a last-minute draft change, because this happens from time to time. It’s particularly odious here because the change potentially lowered the standard for website accessibility that had been required in the agenda version of the contract. They should have publicly amended the agenda in that case, and in failing to do so surely violated the Open Meetings Act.
There’s also an alternative scenario that we must consider in light of the dubious custody arrangement, and we must now raise the level of concern that contracts and other legal documents might be substantively changed in private after approval by city council.
This does not strike me as a reach when you consider bad behavior often exhibited by city staff in public meetings — including the process of hiring CivicPlus:
— Withholding information about a quote for a website accessibility quick fix that four council members individually and specifically asked for and probably would have found satisfactory.
— Using the fiction that the Department of Justice deadline for website accessibility compliance could still be re-negotiated, in order to keep the possibility of hiring CivicPlus in play. The settlement agreement, including the deadline, had actually been finalized more than a week before the meeting, on February 3.
— Allowing a council member to revive the original motion on the contract after it was defeated, without using proper procedure; e.g., no motion to reconsider was made (video segment approx. 4:14:00 to 4:21:00).
Add to that improper mayoral votes on amendments to the contract resolution, and two violations of the Open Meetings Act to keep the Department of Justice agreement under wraps until it suited their plan to hire CivicPlus.
In this context, I ask you: where exactly is the line they will not cross?
You notice I have not singled out the bad actors in city administration by naming names. That’s because it doesn’t matter; the remedy here is a structural one. Regardless of who is doing what city job, we must insist upon the return of the closest thing we’ve probably ever had to an independent watchdog in city hall. A full-time city clerk with restored authority is what we need and deserve to elect.