DeKalb Township reports it’s inundated with FOIA requests

I’ve finished another section of video from last week’s regular meeting of DeKalb Township. This time, I watched the board moan its way through the latest report of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The township supervisor says they’re spending so much time responding to requests, there’s a possibility the township may have to hire another person to help handle them.

The General Assembly recognizes that this Act imposes fiscal obligations on public bodies to provide adequate staff and equipment to comply with its requirements. The General Assembly declares that providing records in compliance with the requirements of this Act is a primary duty of public bodies to the people of this State, and this Act should be construed to this end, fiscal obligations notwithstanding.

Illinois Freedom of Information Act, Section 1

If DeKalb Township does have to come up with the money to hire another person, the suffering is entirely self-inflicted. The township didn’t have to remove documents from its website that had previously been accessible, and they didn’t have to lie about the reason for pulling them. It’s unprofessional conduct that has drawn new scrutiny.

Clip of the FOIA report (about 5-1/2 minutes) is here.

Lastly, let me correct misinformation that’s in the clip. The FOIA officer certainly can direct a requester to the website if the information sought is actually there.

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A case for redistricting DeKalb from scratch

DeKalb’s recipe for seven wards and seven aldermen is not written in stone, and it hasn’t always looked like this. For example, the city used to have at-large aldermen. We can change it again if we assemble the political will.

My aim here is to provoke thoughts about alternatives as DeKalb discusses redistricting work post-Census. The council does not have to accept the current proposal from city management, which perpetuates issues we have with participation and representation.

Argument 1: Voter Engagement

I would support trimming the number of wards. Three of our seven wards experience extremely low nonfederal election turnout, the factors a mixture of high student population, lowered overall population, and continued growth of voter apathy. (In this discussion I’m leaving out issues only the state can fix, such as schedules of local elections.) Here are the total ballots cast in the last local elections taking place in the low-turnout wards:

Ward One (2019): 219

Ward Six (2021): 156

Ward Seven (2019): 45

Mind you, while Ward Seven is the smallest ward currently, it has a population of more than 4,100 people. So we’re looking at 1% turnout, on its face an indictment of the way things are done.

Ballots cast in the other four wards in their last elections ranged from 467 to 914 votes. There are consequences attached to this contrast between lower-turnout wards versus higher-turnout wards. For example, would-be candidates of lower-turnouts will have to get 3-11 voter signatures on their nominating petitions at minimum, while minimums for higher-turnout wards will be 24-46 signatures.* In some wards, then, a would-be candidate could just about call their own household together to get the required signatures, while other candidates have to walk their wards, at least a little, to gather what they need. Why shouldn’t we expect all candidates to have to walk their wards?

An even more important difference between the lower-turnout wards and higher-turnout wards is that the lower-turnouts tend not to have contested races, but the higher-turnouts do — this is a long-term trend and 100% true of the last two city elections. If we want to increase contested races, there has to be some effort put into increasing engaged populations. Fewer wards mean higher populations in each and automatically help serve that goal.

Argument 2: Representation

Reducing the number of wards doesn’t necessarily have to mean eliminating representation. DeKalb could go to a smaller number of wards and add an alderman to each. That way, residents have more than one option for contact person, and voters have the opportunity to eliminate an alderman who is a bozo every two years, a step that can’t hurt morale and might improve it.

Continue reading A case for redistricting DeKalb from scratch

DeKalb Township, that ship has sailed

DeKalb Township has begun posting its meetings on YouTube.

In this video from Wednesday night, the township spends the first 20 minutes of its monthly meeting trying to put new township clerk Andrew Tillotson in his place for exercising his First Amendment rights.

Trustees express concern about how the new township clerk’s public comments might affect the township’s image.

Hilarious. This is the same township that pulled shenanigans to try to keep its supervisor in place even after she moved out of the area. This is the same township that bullied the last township clerk out of office in order to boot a candidate off the April ballot. This is the same township that claims the reason it stopped posting agenda backup material online for the public is because it doesn’t have enough room on the server — a lie.

So, relax about your reputation, DeKalb Township. Clerk Tillotson can’t hurt it any more than you already have yourselves.

DeKalb Township Board Meeting, September 8, 2021

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Housing authority’s listing of payments to Sundog is not complete

Some readers have expressed interest in how much money Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb (HACD) has paid to Sundog IT over the past few years. My ballpark figure covering the calendar years 2015 through 2020 is $325,000. The rest of the post will be about why we can call it only a ballpark figure.

I requested payment listings of HACD from January 1, 2015 “to date,” which was the tail end of August. I expected they would print off a report, but that’s not what the response looks like to me. A report typically identifies the program user and has dates and page numbers. This looks like somebody made a table in Word in which payment information was copied and pasted.

housing-auth-payments-2015-2020

I’ve seen this kind of thing twice before. The first time was when I served on the board of directors of a not-for-profit organization where the executive was hiding transactions from the board. The second time was in a City of DeKalb executive session during which certain administrators ran a smear campaign against one of their colleagues.

Why HACD decided not to print a report, we may never know. I’m just explaining why this is an automatic red flag to me.

Another red flag: missing information. Look on the third page of the PDF to the start of 2020; you can see no entries for February, March, or April. I have 2020 invoices on hand and in cross-checking I did find payments for March and April, and more for January, too. I’ve asked for February payments now and have no reason to believe I won’t get them.

But I have no reason to trust that the missing payments I’ve found were the only omissions, either.

Looks like DeKalb Park District failed us too

The DeKalb Park District Code devotes 3-1/2 pages to protection of trees in the district. But when it comes to contracting IT services, the district can’t be bothered with boilerplate to protect the interests of its non-arboreal constituents.

I decided to continue my comparison of the relationships the Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb (HACD) and DeKalb Park District (DPD) have with Sundog IT. We’ve already established that HACD did not perform a Request for Proposal bidding process and DPD did, which is how we know what fixed-price services DPD approved and should receive.

Unfortunately for us, that’s where the contrasts end.

sundog-signed-quote

This is what appears at the end of Sundog’s bid and comprises the extent of the terms and conditions, according to DPD’s Freedom of Information Act officer. The problem is, DPD is not just taking delivery of a new lawn mower. It’s an agreement for an ongoing working relationship that includes communications and visits to park facilities by Sundog staff, with all risks and liability borne by DPD. An appropriate contract would require Sundog to abide by DPD’s confidentiality guidelines, sexual harassment policy, and other applicable rules of professional conduct.* Also:

  • The duration of the contract should be clear in the contract.*
  • There should be a termination clause that applies to both parties.*
  • Provisions for handling disputes and breaches of contract should be spelled out.*

DPD signed a $7,000 agreement for architectural services related to a roofing project just a couple months before it approved the $45,000 per year IT “contract.” The roofing services agreement contained duration, termination, and dispute resolution provisions as bulleted above, as well as assignment of authority for safety plans.

Again, as with HACD’s faulty agreements with Sundog IT, we see with DPD a manner of dealing with Sundog that suggests partiality that leads to disregard of the public interest. When a standard contract is not enough, as is clearly the case with Sundog’s, it’s time to get the government’s attorney involved.

DPD, next time you’re fixing to sign an IT agreement, pretend we’re trees, okay?*

*Not professional legal advice.

Continue reading Looks like DeKalb Park District failed us too

Documents continue to suggest housing authority’s pattern of partiality toward its IT vendor

In June, the DeKalb Park District approved a contract with Sundog IT, the company owned by DeKalb’s mayor, Cohen Barnes. We opposed the deal for reasons of conflicts of interests, but the district did run a request for proposal (RFP) bidding process and the buck did stop with the park district board, as one would expect.

Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb, Illinois (HACD) has a similar arrangement with Sundog IT for services. However, there is no evidence among documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that an RFP process was followed or that the housing authority board voted on the deal.

Question: Why did the park district run an RFP selection process for IT services but HACD did not?

Answer: HACD probably should have done an RFP.

Continue reading Documents continue to suggest housing authority’s pattern of partiality toward its IT vendor

Housing authority helped Cohen Barnes with marketing his company

Besides giving Cohen Barnes of Sundog IT frontrunner status on contracts, including providing him information about his competition, staff at Housing Authority of County of DeKalb (HACD) used their resources to assist him in crafting a testimonial with their name on it.

emails-cohen-asks-viv-for-testimonial

Notice the HACD operations director cc’d the executive director in granting the favor. This is not one rogue staff member. We can therefore regard granting favors to private companies without public discussion as an institutional issue.

The testimonial appeared on Sundog IT’s website until recently, around the time Mayor Barnes became DeKalb Park District’s chief information officer and City of DeKalb found a way to add parking spaces on North Sixth to benefit HACD despite HACD’s not having discussed or documented one iota of need as far as we can see.

I do not blame Cohen Barnes for soliciting marketing help for his company before he became mayor. But he has shown with his recent behavior in park district and housing authority matters that he either cannot or will not make the shift to public ethics that his oath of office requires.

As for HACD, it is funded with federal dollars and I can’t believe HUD would approve of this use of it.

The avaricious romance of the local housing authority & our mayor

***UPDATE 8/21/2021: I’ve come across the rest of the conversation in my giant pile o’ emails and added the new pdf below the first one. In this batch, the operations director shares information about Sundog’s competition and says, “So, please update your quote. I now, officially have 3 bids or contacts so I can move forward with Sundogit replacing/updating our servers.”***

The following is an email conversation between the operations director of the Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb, Illinois (HACD) and Cohen Barnes of Sundog IT (Barnes), who is now mayor of the City of DeKalb. HACD was gathering price quotes for replacement of a failing server at the time.

Barnes: Does this help you with having a competitive quote? If so, what are the next steps for moving forward?

HACD: Thank you so very much Cohen. I also have Impact Networking, LLC…They supposedly also work out of Rockford and now support Ogle County HA — which is a smaller HA. They are coming in next Wednesday to talk servers. Hopefully, I can get a quote out of him ASAP (and yes, I will share that info with you)[.] Once I receive that quote — I will add it to my comparison spreadsheet — run it by the grand pooba (aka Shelly) — I am guessing she will want to give the board a little more in depth facts and figures (they already know our server has to go). And then we will give you the go to order.

Barnes: Let me know when we are closer and I will refresh our quote.

— Email string obtained from HACD under Illinois Freedom of Information Act

One of the basic rules HACD must follow as a government body in buying goods and services is the way they conduct procurement should “maximize competition and competitive pricing among contracts and decrease the Agency’s procurement costs.”

It is difficult to see how HACD can accomplish any increase in competition when it plays favorites, as illustrated by its relationship with Cohen Barnes and Sundog IT in which Sundog is the presumed winner even before all the quotes come in.

Continue reading The avaricious romance of the local housing authority & our mayor

Let’s learn from Hammer before we incentivize Barb

Remember “Project Hammer,” the big food manufacturing and warehousing project that ended up unmasked as Ferrara Candy? We offered them a lot of incentives to come here.

The incentives are flowing because that was the only way Ferrara would choose DeKalb for its new facilities over a city in Wisconsin, city leaders told us.

From the backup material for the December 29, 2019 city council meeting, here’s the list of state incentives a qualified project in the enterprise zone is eligible for:

— An exemption on the state sales tax paid on building materials for new construction, expansion, or an interior buildout.

— An Investment Tax Credit of 0.5 percent for any qualified property.

— Assistance in road upgrades from IDOT’s Economic Development Program (EDP). This program provides 50% state funding for locally-owned roads and 100% funding for state-owned routes that serve new or expanding industrial developments. A maximum of $2 million ($30,000 per new job created) is available for a qualified project.

— Natural Gas Tax Exemption for “wheeled” or open market natural gas transactions.”

We’ve come a long way from the Illinois EDGE tax credit. The enterprise zone comes with a really nice package. So why did we have to up the ante on local incentives? Local governments signed a 50% property tax abatement agreement that stretches 15 years instead of the usual 10. And City of DeKalb additionally approved $500,000 to furnish a water main loop and an abatement of 50% of electrical utility taxes for 15 years.

The building is built and the ribbons are cut. Let’s have the list of incentives offered to Ferrara’s site selectors by the State of Wisconsin and the loser Wisconsin town, so we know exactly how DeKalb came out on top.

That way, when it’s time to incentivize the new warehouse build, Project Barb, we’ll have more information to evaluate whether the Hammer package was just right or overkill, and adjust offerings accordingly. We wouldn’t want to give away the farm if we don’t have to.

How the DeKalb Housing Authority violates the Open Meetings Act

The DeKalb County Housing Authority has not often pinged my radar until now. A few years ago a couple people shared with me their being told by staff that federal rules prohibited bringing their cats with them into public housing unless the animals were declawed; my advice since then is to ask for citation of chapter and verse when it comes to staff “interpreting” house rules.

Much more recently the housing authority’s suffering over inadequate parking at headquarters came to the fore because City of DeKalb decided to fix it by turning a section of North Sixth Street into one-way traffic to squeeze out a few more spaces.

What really makes it difficult to spot the general public interest in the city’s granting of this assistance is the lack of public process to establish the need in the first place, and to explain why the city jumped into a county problem with city resources. I asked the authority to provide me with records of its board’s discussions of the parking issues. There aren’t any. This appears to be 100% the product of back-room conversations until the matter popped up on the council agenda as a possible ordinance. An ordinance has passed, so now we can only guess at better solutions public discussion might have generated.

Continue reading How the DeKalb Housing Authority violates the Open Meetings Act