Unauthorized compensation of city commissioners: the fix should be simple


City of DeKalb has been paying compensation to at least two of its advisory commissions without proper authorization.

Members of the Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) and the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners both receive what look like meeting per diems in the expenditure records. But it turns out the payments aren’t properly authorized — or at least, the city hasn’t yet succeeded in producing proof that they are.

I don’t oppose reasonable compensation for any board or commission, and the two commissions currently receiving it (at what looks to be $25 to $30 per member per meeting) happen to carry more responsibilities than some others. I also believe the current absence of authorization is an honest mistake and the commission members themselves are 100% blameless. The per diems were probably authorized by ordinances a long time ago and the compensation accidently left out of revisions of these ordinances.

Mayor Barnes has assured me these ordinances will appear on a city council agenda soon, giving aldermen the opportunity to reconsider and amend.

I’d stop here, except for wanting to point out a fly in the ointment, and that is the attempted scapegoating of resident Mark Charvat, who discovered the error with P&Z last weekend. Mr. Charvat notified the city immediately, and then showed up to the council meeting to talk about it, only to be attacked by an alderman who indulged in a nasty rant enabled by the mayor as chair.

The council’s bad behavior, which continued beyond the meeting, I won’t address further today. For now, I want to focus on the alderman’s evident objection to Mr. Charvat’s characterizing of the commission compensation as illegal.

Until proof of authorization turns up, they are illegal. Ordinances are laws, even where no penalties attach for violations. All payments the city makes to anyone must be authorized in advance by duly qualified persons via ordinance, contract, and/or other official documentation. In the case of boards and commissions, the authority is the city council and the documentation an ordinance.

Properly executed ordinances also protect us in making payments to the city, as in fees and fines. Without them, city personnel could charge you whatever they want to settle a parking ticket or obtain a building permit. A prime example of their importance was demonstrated by DeKalb’s auditors dogging the city for two years until the water rates the city was charging matched their authorizing ordinance.

What’s not going to be so simple as resetting compensation is what the mistakes represent: a badly-needed cleanup of the codified ordinances known as the DeKalb Municipal Code. It’s a mess caused by years of neglect, and it doesn’t help the case for directing resources toward the problem when elected representatives imply these laws don’t matter.