Elements of a sound policy for automated license plate readers

The Daily Chronicle covered the October 11 city council discussion that led to approval of the purchase of 12 automated license plate readers. The newspaper purports to know how DeKalb PD plans to use the ALPRs, but that is not entirely true. They talked about some aspects, but as yet DeKalb has no formal policy on usage, and until a written policy is put into place PD has no local rules for the technology — and no regulations exist at our state and federal levels, either.

That being said, we might reasonably expect a policy is forthcoming, just as the policy for body-worn cameras was introduced last year. Also, more than a dozen states do have ALPR regulations targeting privacy concerns, which can act as a guide in addressing the issues inherent to the technology. Here’s a summary of decisions I suggest need to be made and spelled out for the public:

  • Data access rules for who, how, and when (i.e., public logging, time limits for access.).
  • Time limits for data storage and destruction.
  • Prohibition on selling data and strict limits on sharing it.
  • Confidentiality and Freedom of Information compliance.
  • Enactment of third-party audit processes to assist in oversight.

All of these decisions are important, and to me, two of them are critical to privacy and prevention of abuse of the technology: data access and storage limits. If we time-limit storage, we reduce the risk that ALPRs replace GPS surveillance. Here’s why that’s desirable:

It wasn’t so long ago that privacy rights advocates were cheering a Supreme Court decision in United States v. Jones that put limits on law enforcement’s ability to place GPS trackers on cars. With enough license-plate readers on the street, all feeding into a centralized database, the government could forgo GPS trackers and the Fourth Amendment tests that they trigger, and just monitor all cars always, plugging in a license plate when they want to know about the bygone movements of a particular person.

~ The Atlantic, “Total Information Awareness: ‘Scanning License Plates’ Edition”
Continue reading Elements of a sound policy for automated license plate readers

Water is the new TIF

This is second of a series. First one is here.

For years, DeKalb bailed out its general operating budget with tax increment financing (TIF) funds. TIF administrative fees helped soften the blows following the 2008 market crashes and assisted the hiring spree after that. Now the enormous “TIF 1” district is gone, replaced by the “Downtown TIF” that is but a shadow of its previously glorious, slush-fund-y self.

Pandemic relief money — just in time — is now subsidizing the city’s payroll and will continue to do so for a couple more years. What follows when that’s gone, especially now that other federal funds will disappear with our population losses? My hypothesis is the Water Operations Fund will see pressure to take on more of the bailout role.

Water Ops already assists in compensating city employees who work outside of that division, and has for ages. But since 2016 it’s hard to spot. The city scrapped its policy of clean, transparent transfers from Water Fund to General Fund and adopted deceptive budgeting practices that help to conceal the dependence on water sales.*

The Water Ops budget for regular full-time wages this year is $1.2 million, enough to cover base wages for 15 Water (aka Utility) employees including supervisors. But Water only has nine full-timers. The rest goes to help staff the city manager’s office and divisions under the manager’s direct supervision (Finance, HR, IT) without this being shown anywhere in the General Fund budget where these offices and divisions reside. Water also is apparently picking up the insurance tab for more than its nine workers, as its currently budgeted expense for employee health insurance is $569,000.*


Continue reading Water is the new TIF

DeKalb taps into water trends

First of a series.

The Better Government Association recently published an article about Joliet’s ambitious and controversial mayor, who plans to buy Lake Michigan water from Chicago.

[Water scarcity] tensions have arrived in northeastern Illinois, which, despite its proximity to the world’s fourth-largest source of fresh water, faces a coming water crisis.

Among the first battlegrounds are Chicago’s southwest suburbs, which have been reliably served for 150 years by underground sandstone aquifers that soon won’t be able to keep up with forecasted demand.

The loss of the aquifers — which comes as water bills are already rising and climate change accelerates — will leave many Chicago suburbs with the added expense of finding alternative sources to survive.

BGA: “Pipeline to Chicago could make Joliet mayor the new suburban water czar”

Joliet has about a decade to solve the problem. The idea is to find alternatives to pumping its aquifer dry and to conserve what’s left in the aquifer for emergencies. Its mayor wants to fund the infrastructure for piping surface water by reselling the lake water to neighboring communities and by recruiting new customers in the form of large industrial users of water — a scheme that has landed the city in court, so who knows how this will turn out.

Continue reading DeKalb taps into water trends

Housing authority’s dealings with Morning Star Media

A month ago Ryan Weckerly, president of Morning Star Media, Ltd., agreed to plead guilty in federal court to charges related to a $3 million-plus kickback scheme.

Several units of local government have paid Morning Star over the past decade. City of Sycamore gave the company TIF money to help it settle in new digs downtown. City of DeKalb coughed up more than $30,000 as part of a rebranding scheme that included creation of the city’s current logo. Some public bodies use(d) them for website design. Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb (HACD) sought Morning Star’s services to help present a different way of looking at the organization and the people it serves.

Who is Morningstar?

What is locally known as MorningStar or Morningstar is a sort of collective of at least three corporations and assumed names of two of them. The common denominator is Ryan Weckerly as the president or manager of each. This includes Morning Star Media Group, Ltd.; Morningstar Interactive, Inc. aka Invironments Magazine; and Blank Slate Media, LLC aka Blank Slate Ads. Blank Slate Media/Ads has been reported as the company Weckerly used in the kickback scheme, is the newest of the three corporations and was organized in 2015.

In this post, we’ll use the more customary presentation “Morningstar” to denote Weckerly’s enterprises generally.

Open Meetings and Freedom of Information

HACD has particularly attracted the attention of city watchers for its relationship with Morningstar within a larger context of problems unearthed with Open Meetings Act violations and HACD’s chronic inability to produce complete vendor contracts and payment records when requested under Freedom of Information Act.

I asked HACD for records of payments to Morningstar and the response didn’t make a lick of sense initially. HACD put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) in late 2016 and meeting minutes of January 2017 included the announcement of the award to Morningstar, yet payments to Morningstar didn’t start until 2018. Turns out the contract resulting from Request for Proposal (RFP) 16-040 involved the services of three Weckerly companies that were invoiced and paid separately: Morning Star Media for website and social media, Invironments Magazine for stories and ads in the magazine of that name, and Blank Slate Ads for advertising on billboards and bus shelters.

Invoices arrived sporadically and sometimes months late. The HACD executive director commented in an email that Morningstar had a “horrible accounting and billing system.” Despite this, the payment records indicate HACD stuck with Morningstar until well into 2019.

Continue reading Housing authority’s dealings with Morning Star Media

A look back: DeKalb and its radium water

25 years ago, residents of DeKalb organized to pressure the city to reduce the amount of radium in our drinking water. The city, which already had obtained a variance that allowed it to exceed EPA limits for radium, required a second variance in 1996 to obtain permits to extend water mains for new construction. This presented an opportunity to argue for a higher standard for the long-term health of the community. Upon discovering the Illinois Pollution Control Board regulations allowed for citizens to request public hearings, that’s what they did. Here’s the letter to the editor that Linda Lahey wrote to alert her neighbors of the upcoming public hearing:


And here is the city’s rebuttal, two days later:


This was city government attacking an individual who disagreed with its policy, and the newspaper of record approving the hostilities. The double betrayal must have been devastating at the time. But the residents persisted. They filed suit against the city in December 2016 and, just shy of a year later, they won.

Continue reading A look back: DeKalb and its radium water

Defendants added to the 145 Fisk lawsuit against Nicklas and City of DeKalb

New defendants were added last week to the “145 Fisk” lawsuit against city manager Bill Nicklas and City of DeKalb that could potentially cost the city millions if it loses.

John F. Pappas, Pappas Development, LLC, and PNG Development, LLC — collectively named “Pappas Entities” in the court order — were previously named as respondents in discovery (RIDs) but were converted to defendants on two counts of an amended complaint when the Court found probable cause on claims of alleged civil conspiracy and alleged action in concert.

RIDs participate in depositions and other activities of discovery, but are not parties to lawsuits as defendants are.

In December 2018, following two years of project development, City of DeKalb signed a preliminary agreement with plaintiff 145 Fisk, LLC (Fisk) to redevelop the dilapidated former St. Mary’s hospital. The plan included an incentive to the developer of $2.5 million in tax increment financing (TIF) funds. Fisk is alleging the city unlawfully terminated the agreement in April 2019 and that the termination was instigated by Bill Nicklas, whom the city council had hired as city manager at the beginning of that year.

Weeks after the Fisk termination, the council approved a preliminary agreement on a downtown redevelopment plan with John Pappas that included a $3 million TIF incentive, and the city finalized the Pappas agreement in August of 2019.

The Fisk complaint requests judgment “in excess of $2.5 million dollars compensatory damages, taxable costs, and any other remedy this court deems equitable and just.”

Continue reading Defendants added to the 145 Fisk lawsuit against Nicklas and City of DeKalb

Public officials’ ill-advised campaign contributions

We’ve talked about ethics issues and Bill Nicklas before, in the context of his outside employment, which — shamefully — the city council has so far failed to address.

Now we see Mr. Nicklas, DeKalb city manager since the beginning of 2019, has been making political contributions to Illinois Representative Jeff Keicher.


(“Report Received Date” of 9/9/2021 for both itemized contributions reflect dates of amended reports following discovery of an old error.)

Campaign contributions are prohibited by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) to avoid undermining public confidence in administrators.

Elections. Members share with their fellow citizens the right and responsibility to vote. However, in order not to impair their effectiveness on behalf of the local governments they serve, they shall not participate in political activities to support the candidacy of individuals running for any city, county, special district, school, state or federal offices. Specifically, they shall not endorse candidates, make financial contributions, sign or circulate petitions, or participate in fund-raising activities for individuals seeking or holding elected office.

Tenet 7 Guidelines of the ICMA Code of Ethics

The city manager has said publicly that City of DeKalb does pay dues to Illinois ICMA, which has adopted ICMA Ethics Code in full. Clearly, this is a total waste of money.

For his part, Rep. Keicher evidently knows a good “give and take” when he sees one. He transferred funds from his campaign committee to Cohen Barnes’ mayoral campaign committee. Rep. Tom Demmer did so, too. This is unusual in that state reps who are Republicans normally endorse and contribute to other Republicans. Mayor Barnes ran as an independent, got support from prominent state-level GOP, and the third piece is some DeKalb County Democrats thought they were helping a Democrat in supporting him, judging by a discussion in our Facebook group. That’s quite a con.

Continue reading Public officials’ ill-advised campaign contributions

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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