DeKalb Tried to Hide Settlement Agreement with Former Community Development Director

Last year, City of DeKalb got caught violating the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA) in approving a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

There were actually two violations, but the one we are concerned with here is DeKalb city council’s failure to take its final vote on the matter in a public session of city council.

Because it looks they’ve done it again.

In a letter dated October 11, Ellen Divita Weber resigned her position as the city’s community development director; and on October 27, city manager Anne Marie Gaura signed a separation agreement with her.

In case it needs to be said, separation agreements are settlement agreements.

I’ve checked the likely agendas, including that of the October 24 regular council meeting, for the resolution that council voted on to authorize the settlement. There isn’t one. Then I emailed Ms. Gaura to ask her help in finding the item, but have never heard back and it’s been three days.

The agreement includes at least two provisions that cost us: a promise that the city would pay the “employer’s portion” of premiums for COBRA benefits for six months, and a non-disclosure agreement.

Public bodies are only supposed to spend public money for public purposes. Presenting a parting gift to a former employee who isn’t contractually entitled to it, and who has already voluntarily resigned, isn’t an action with a public purpose.

You probably already know that you and I would have to pay the full COBRA premium on our own, and now we’re stuck paying someone else’s through a sneaky trick.

While unlawful, it is apparently traditional for DeKalb’s managers to negotiate separation agreements costing less than the spending authority limit set by DeKalb ordinance. The limit is $19,999, and to my knowledge at least two city managers have abused this authority to pen settlements and other naughty agreements for less than $20,000 without placing them on city council agendas for public votes. The agreements then remain secret unless somebody somehow suspects they exist, and obtains them under the Freedom of Information Act.

That’s not how this is supposed to work. There is no “spending authority” exception to the Open Meetings Act. All Illinois municipalities must follow the OMA, even the ones with home rule powers, and it’s exactly why the city was found in violation of OMA in its handling the Department of Justice settlement.

To operate in a way that upholds the Open Meetings Act, our city council should see to it that the city manager uses the spending authority only to purchase goods and services. Even better, council should reduce the limit, and/or condition it upon demonstrable emergencies.

Council may have to devote more time to approving expenditures, but we should not value efficiency over lawfulness.

We should ask what’s to be done with a city manager, attorney, clerk, and council members who are either too dense or too corrupt to learn their lessons.