As DeKalb city clerk, I feel like a punching bag

***Update: Find discussion and comments in our Facebook group .***

When I read the other day the Daily Chronicle is still calling it a “rift” in describing what’s going on between the city manager’s office and me as city clerk, I realized I have to say more than I have before. It’s no longer a “rift,” if it ever was — that would imply equality of treatment. The relationship is more like I’m a punching bag for the city manager’s office.

To help illustrate, here are two of the latest email exchanges between the city manager and me. (I will also post copies of the actual emails at the end of this post.) Mind you, my emails addressed the city council only. I cc’d the city manager as a courtesy.

My message to the city council, December 6, 2019:

Dear Mayor Smith et al,

As some of you are already aware, in September I agreed to take on the process of preparing for the semi-annual review of executive session meeting minutes approval and release recommendations.

Having begun the process this week, I have discovered errors in the indexes that have resulted in executive session meeting minutes being released to the public that were not approved for release by council.

I have two requests to make to address these issues:

1. To remove, as soon as possible, published executive session meeting minutes from the City’s website until these errors can be corrected.

2. To amend the Council regular meeting agenda for December 9 by adding an executive session to discuss these minutes as provided for in 5 ILCS 120/2(c)(21).

Regards,
Lynn Fazekas | City Clerk

City manager’s reply, December 6, 2019:

Good afternoon,

As tiring and distracting as the City Clerk’s fabrications and thinly-veiled charges against Ruth Scott may be, they are–more importantly—creating the basis for an employee harassment charge which will be substantial and embarrassing to the City at a time when we are within sight of some transformational growth. As your chief administrative officer and development director, I ask that we discuss these unfounded allegations in executive session where the truth can be dispassionately shared, and then get back to what the public has asked us to do.

As an historian and a keen observer of the American political scene since the early 1970s, I have been witness to many national public figures who have sadly appealed to base emotions by plucking some imagined dark thread of corruption and laying it on the shoulders of persons whose dedication is a constant reminder of their own inadequacies. Before January 1, I thought I had seen everything, and I also thought I would never see, on a local level, the conspiratorial thinking that animates the City Clerk. As there seems to be no relief from her presence until the spring of 2021, I trust that we will collectively find ways to hold her to the duties that the Council approved on October 14, and also hold her to what is commonly understood as professional decency and discretion.

In the weeks and months ahead, I hope we can focus on the main thing.

Best,
Bill

Continue reading As DeKalb city clerk, I feel like a punching bag

DeKalb Park District property transfer could use another look

DeKalb Park District (DPD) passed a resolution last summer to convey park property to City of DeKalb for its new city hall. The transfer has since occurred under an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between the two.

City of DeKalb paid DPD a dollar for the property known as the Nehring building. Possibly illegally by ignoring the Park District Code of the Illinois Compiled Statutes. Definitely unfairly as we bear witness, for example, to DPD’s financial struggles to keep its golf courses open. 

DPD acknowledges it must go to referendum to sell a golf course – there’s the Park District Code for you – but somehow a virtual freebie to the city under IGA is fine? What the two parties did was cite other authorities for the conveyance, the Local Government Property Transfer Act and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act. Here’s what the Property Transfer Act says:

If such real estate shall be held by the transferor municipality without restriction, the said municipality shall have power to grant or convey such real estate or any portion thereof to the transferee municipality upon such terms as may be agreed upon by the corporate authorities of both municipalities…

“If…without restriction…” So, isn’t the next step to check the statutes that apply to the transferor to see what restrictions it might have? City of DeKalb might not have any restrictions, but the city is not the transferor. DPD is, and Article 10 of the Park District Code has a lot to say about it. Continue reading DeKalb Park District property transfer could use another look

Clerking and blogging

On Monday, unlikely as it may sound, DeKalb city council might vote to appoint me to the office of city clerk.

No matter how it turns out, the fact remains that Mayor Jerry Smith has placed under consideration a person who can be a vocal critic of this administration. That takes a bit of nerve. I was trying to think of the last mayor who might have done something similar, and came up with Mayor Frank Van Buer, who appointed the redoubtable Mac McIntyre to the city’s Finance Advisory Committee 10 years ago. Let’s give due respect, because this type of inclusion doesn’t happen every day.

What would happen with the blog? Contrary to current rumors, giving up the blog is not a condition of the clerk appointment — at least not overtly. The actual question was, “How do you reconcile the clerk’s position with the blog?” and my answer was, “I don’t.”

Whatever success I’ve enjoyed as a blogger has depended in large part upon people’s not being afraid to talk to me. My assumption is that effectiveness as the city clerk involves the same level of trust.

If appointed, then, City Barbs blog would go into other hands or on hiatus, and a trusted group of moderators would manage the Facebook group.

But maybe there would be clerkblog.

DeKalb’s financial forecast through 2023

You need to know what that hole is, even if you can’t solve it right now. ~Larry Kujovich, Executive Partners, Inc., addressing the DeKalb city council on strategic planning (2013).

Last week, DeKalb’s finance department shared an operating budget forecast through 2023 with the finance advisory committee. Having obtained a copy, I’ve created a graphic to show operating fund (General Fund) highlights.*

Continue reading DeKalb’s financial forecast through 2023

Five reasons to slow down expansion plans for DeKalb’s in-house administrative hearings

There’s city council support for a Committee of the Whole meeting to air issues with the city attorney’s project to expand the types of ordinance violations the city will hear in-house. I think the CoW is going to happen, and I’ll keep you posted.

If so, it’s an excellent development, and shows council’s responsiveness to constituents’ concerns. Perhaps we’ll soon see the end of the pattern of staff’s working on pet projects in secret, then bursting onto the scene in create-a-crisis mode.

Here are five considerations for discussion.

1. The circuit court’s deadline does not have to be our deadline. If the court decides to conduct its ordinance violations process at the courthouse instead of city hall as of July 1, then people will have to travel to Sycamore for a while. If the court changes the day of the week that it conducts the hearings, people will have to change their calendars. These logistical inconveniences are not good enough reasons to risk errors. To get the ordinances right, we need to set our own pace.

2. This is the city manager’s job. It’s the city manager who oversees DeKalb’s administrative hearing procedure, via appointments to the city’s ordinance enforcement division. The new manager should have an opportunity to provide his or her perspective, including an opinion on the scope of the program. We also have no idea so far about the financial consequences of adding permanent staff, not to mention our continually increasing dependence on punishing people to fill budget holes.

3. We must eliminate the appearance of conflicts of interest. Why is the city attorney driving this initiative? It feeds the perception that he is the de facto city manager, and also that he is serving his own interests by expanding his role. This project must not proceed until he is put back, and seen to be put back, into his proper place in the organization. Continue reading Five reasons to slow down expansion plans for DeKalb’s in-house administrative hearings

County support of Frieders’ initiative?

So as we were saying the other day, DeKalb city attorney Dean Frieders made a pitch for in-house adjudication of local ordinance violations via administrative hearings.

To be clear, DeKalb already does administrative hearings, but it’s limited to violations related to the administrative towing ordinance, parking citations, and city-issued licenses. So what we’re talking about is an expansion in what DeKalb would handle itself, as opposed to using the circuit court process.

Frieders said the chief circuit court judge and state’s attorney support the changes. I’m sure that’s true and it’s fine. These officials get to run their offices the way they see fit. But county board members contacted by citizens since the presentation, including members of the Law and Justice Committee, hadn’t heard of it. They should have, because budgeting. Continue reading County support of Frieders’ initiative?

The hidden agenda item

At the end of last week’s council meeting in DeKalb, city attorney Dean Frieders presented an argument for in-house adjudication of ordinance violations. Currently, DeKalb conducts administrative hearings on very minor ordinance violations at city hall once a week as an administrative branch of the circuit court. Frieders’ plan would detach DeKalb from the county-level judiciary, and DeKalb would handle more types of ordinance violations than it does now.

This would be major, right? You could reasonably expect the changes to affect ordinances, staffing and budget, with impacts to individuals and businesses. Yet the item did not appear on the agenda for the meeting, because Frieders made the pitch during the part of the meeting listed as “Reports – Communications” (“Reports”).

“Reports” does not individually specify what to expect, because nobody knows. It’s essentially a “Good of the Order” that involves non-actionable items such as announcements, updates and general comments on the conduct of city business.

Doing it this way also provides no opportunity for public comment.

So what you wouldn’t expect is use of “Reports” to introduce a major initiative as if it were a routine progress report on a course of action already publicly approved. Yet that appears to be what happened. I’ve talked to at least a half-dozen fellow city watchers and nobody remembers any public discussion of in-house adjudication. It’s also not on any city agenda posted this year that I can find.

Where this item actually belonged, then, was “New Business,” with its own subject line and its own explanatory memo stuffed into the backup packet. People actually do skim city agendas to find and research items of importance, and in this case they couldn’t because it wasn’t there.

I have no firm idea why they did it this way, but transparency it ain’t. Continue reading The hidden agenda item

We don’t need a code enforcement SWAT team

DeKalb city council will discuss its condemnation procedures at committee of the whole Tuesday, May 29, beginning 5 pm. Proposed changes are here.

What I like about the proposal are the addition of follow-up steps: to gather contact information on residential tenants for ongoing notification purposes, and to assist evacuees to relocate.

One thing that council should not do is put the contrived “emergency condemnation” procedures on the books. What went wrong with the last condemnation is not that current procedures are inadequate, but that the city didn’t follow them. When inspectors found problems with Lord Stanley’s last fall, they should have re-inspected them, warned them, penalized them, called in the county, and notified everybody properly. They did none of these things. Instead, the city ambushed them with what looks now to have been a fake emergency. The fiasco was a standout for its utter lack of due process, and to put a seal of approval on this invention of “emergency condemnation” would only encourage future abuses.

Even to consider a rewrite of these codes is bizarre. DeKalb has adopted the International Building Code for handling these matters. What’s good enough for the rest of the country will work for us if we follow it.

The Hooplah in Elmhurst

hooplah buttonsSometimes it helps perspective to check out what other communities are doing. DeKalb’s not the only municipality with code enforcement that sometimes looks inconsistent or arbitrary. I’ve been following such a story in Elmhurst for more than a year.

A documentary about the Elmhurst controversy is titled “Hooplah” and residents have adopted the same name for their activities, which primarily involve support for a hoop house ordinance but also end up contributing to the larger cause of good governance.

A hoop house is a passive-solar sheltering structure that helps a gardener extend a growing season. It functions kind of like a greenhouse, except that it is a temporary structure that does not have a foundation, and uses flexible plastic sheeting over plastic or metal “hoops” instead of rigid walls.

nicoles hoop house

Here are two examples of hoop houses. The one above is gone, because City of Elmhurst made the owners take it down after a couple of months. The one below, also in Elmhurst, has reportedly stayed put continuously for 10 years. What’s the difference: size, anchorage, lot coverage? Nobody knows. Guidelines and requirements don’t exist — not yet anyway.

a neighbors permanent hoop house

Hooplah started when Nicole Virgil and her family decided to take their raised-bed organic gardening to the next level by growing as close to year-round as possible. The plan involved assembling a hoop house in the fall and taking it down in the spring. It is something they assumed was an accessory structure to gardening as is, say, a shed. But then a neighbor complained about it, and City of Elmhurst forced the Virgils to take it down in February 2017. Continue reading The Hooplah in Elmhurst