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.

What triggered the drought seems to have been a request I made for additional documentation, “minimally applications, communications, and receipts,” as part of issuing annual rooming house licenses (never a problem, by the way, when the finance division handled things). However, the response to this request was to decide that the clerk does not issue rooming house licenses or fire-life safety licenses and the city manager should sign them instead. Emails are below. (Hover with cursor to see where to click for the second page.)

emails-rooming-house-fls

Please note: Nobody notified me of the change. I spotted the emails while reading the response to a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request more than a month later. My next stop was the DeKalb Municipal Code.

Chapter 14 of the DeKalb Municipal Code says:

After determination of the City Manager, or designee, that a license should be issued, the city clerk shall issue a rooming house or dormitory license.

Chapter 16 of the DeKalb Municipal Code says:

After determination by the fire chief, or designee, that a [fire-life safety] license should be issued, the City Clerk shall issue the same.

I submit FOIA requests monthly as a “look behind” of all the original documents I should be inspecting, signing, and sealing myself. I log each document and do what I can about findings, but a downside of FOIA is the lag between a deed and its discovery, especially where I’m slow to catch on to the extent of bad behavior. Still, FOIA has been a lifesaver in an environment where games are played and truth so often the loser.

The big picture here is the systematic dismantling of procedures set up ages ago to reduce the risk of theft. Cutting the clerk’s role in licensing enables the city manager to act as both grantor and issuer. The grantor is the expert who determines an applicant’s qualifications to hold a license. The issuer is the authority who makes sure procedure has been followed. There is supposed to be a separation, a deliberate control to ensure accuracy and accountability. The default of clerk as issuer has, in the past, ensured granting and issuing aren’t done by the same department or office or — heaven forbid — the same person. That protection is now gone.