***UPDATE 4/8/2021:After writing the original post, I decided to phone the Public Access Counselor (PAC) of the Attorney General’s Office to discuss possible Open Meetings Act implications of the incident described in it. Following the discussion, I filed a Request for Review and today I was notified that the PAC has accepted the request. Below is a copy.
The TIF forensic assessment revealed that City of DeKalb was unable to locate documents the auditors asked for, even basic records like invoices. We will never know whether the city lost invoices or just paid the developers without bothering with them. But here’s a clue: careless handling of contracts worth more than $180,000, to be paid out of TIF funds, occurred during a council meeting just last week. At minimum, the handling lowered their visibility.
Consideration versus Resolution
The March 22, 2021 DeKalb city council meeting agenda has separate sections for considerations and resolutions. Here’s the first consideration:
1. Consideration of a Contract with Gehrke Construction for the Repair and Remodeling of Fire Station One in the Amount of $139,205.00.
And here’s the first resolution on the same agenda.
1. Resolution 2021-023 Approving a Second Addendum to the Non-Exclusive License Agreement for the Installation of Underground Fiber Optic Facilities within the Public Right-of-Way (Dated June 15, 2010) for the Expansion of the Annie Glidden North Broadband Infrastructure Project.
Two things distinguish a resolution from a consideration: level of detail and a unique identifying number. A consideration is a discussion item only, meant as a way for city staff to take direction from the council on next steps, which might eventually include a resolution. A resolution, on the other hand, is an action item and is a detailed document by necessity. It must have a title detailed enough for a reasonable person to understand what council is voting on, and more details in its body, such as authorizations and other assignments for executing the action.
Mayor Jerry Smith has just endorsed Cohen Barnes for mayor. How is that credible? Mayor Smith has rarely acted in a way that shows he understands the mayor’s role as champion of all the people. Former DeKalb Alderman David Jacobson was the one who showed up at Lord Stanley’s to talk to worried residents. Current DeKalb Alderman Carolyn Morris was the one who defended me against a smear campaign in an illegal closed session that excluded me – and then she defended DeKalb voters by voting to save the clerk’s office from malicious destruction.
DeKalb’s city council has so far failed to face the troubling results of its last annual audit. This has led to a failure to recognize the connections between those results and the turnover and staff reductions in Finance Division, including the loss of a full-time finance director.
And the squeeze is still on for this year.
To put this into historical context, DeKalb used to have ten full-time, in-house finance staff, including an appointed treasurer/controller and two senior account clerks. Now there is no named full-time treasurer or controller, reductions in positions have occurred three years running, and these remaining staff are supervised by the assistant city manager, who also supervises human resources and information technology personnel.
The determination resolves at least three requests for review of NIU Foundation’s refusals to release information on payments to vendors. It followed an examination of the relationship between NIU and NIU Foundation.
Hover over the top of the PDF to enlarge it and turn pages.
The headline is a quote from City of DeKalb’s latest budget meeting, a joint meeting of city council with the Finance Advisory Committee held last week. Alderman Carolyn Morris asked about following up on findings from the TIF forensic assessment . The city manager and the FAC chair responded that no laws were broken, no “felonious activity” occurred, and that was pretty much that.
Let’s take a closer look at the statement that no laws were broken. If a city makes transfers from its TIF fund to its general operating fund to reimburse for staff time spent working on TIF projects, but then inflates the transfers beyond fair reimbursement to “bail out and make the General Fund look better,” as the city manager has aptly put it, these actions run counter to the TIF Act. Criminal penalties may not attach, but committing zero felonies doesn’t equal law-abiding. Taxpayers and taxing bodies got cheated out of returns on TIF projects so city government could enjoy a larger workforce than it could otherwise afford. The loss is real, large, and a result of ignoring rules to work a staff agenda. Don’t let anyone minimize it.
As DeKalb’s city clerk, I’ve been participating in council meetings via teleconferencing since April. Then, during the July 13 committee-of-the-whole meeting, the city council, somewhat bizarrely, took a vote to allow me to teleconference. This post will explain why.
Here’s the clip of part of the mayor’s introduction to the topic. (The first 4-1/2 minutes of the audio were lost and not recovered.)
The money quote:
Accordingly, if a majority of the council allows for the city clerk to attend this meeting, and our following city council meeting, by means other than physical presence, then it may do so without also having to provide the same accommodations to the general public.
So, how did this all start? After looking at the July 13 council meeting agendas, I saw the city was intending to remove remote participation from the general public as an option. Here’s my email to the mayor about it:
The city then went right to work to prove me wrong. I think they spent half a day coming up with a reason to offer me the “courtesy” of the Zoom application while barring the public from same. The mayor rushed a vote through council on an item that wasn’t on the agenda — does council even know what it voted for? The vote itself was another subversion of the clerk’s independence of office, an abuse of home rule power, and — since home rule does not supersede the Open Meetings Act — it was a violation of OMA as well.
The one thing they got right, the one teensy bright spot in the latest fiasco, is the acknowledgement that council, not the city manager’s office, has the final say in how to conduct its meetings.
If council wants Zoom for all, Zoom for all must happen.
The DeKalb city council recently received and filed its fiscal 2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) along with the auditor’s letters and communications to council and management. Although the audit was problematic, the council did not talk about the issues, so we will do it here. First, to summarize:
The auditor detected material misstatements in the financial statements.
The auditor found deficiencies in internal controls that are supposed to prevent and detect material misstatements.
The auditor reported that findings from fiscal 2018 were not corrected in 2019, including mismatches between fee rates charged and the actual rates authorized by ordinance.
For the second year in a row, the city has failed to review and properly adjust accounts at year’s end.
First victim is Human Relations Commission, which during its last meeting enjoyed remote participation via the Zoom application by nearly 90 people. Since the meeting tonight also will not be televised, your only option for real-time participation is to show up in person for an historic discussion of recommendations for better police-community relations.
This is a completely backwards move. Reasons:
— Safety. I have not watched one city meeting in which board members and city staff have successfully practiced COVID-19 precautions. At times I’ve seen no masks, masks pulled down under noses and chins, and failures of social distancing — even people shaking hands. During the last TIF Joint Review Board meeting, members of the public who attended in person had to pass within a couple feet of board members to make their comments.
Another safety issue right now is the weather. Some people have medical issues that prevent them from venturing outdoors in the extreme heat. Pulling Zoom at this point seems ableist.
— Accommodation. The Open Meetings Act states that public meetings must be held at times and in places convenient to the public. Remote public participation is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Act, and turnout when Zoom is used demonstrates there is demand for this option.
— Progress. There is no good reason not to make remote public participation part of the repertoire for conducting meetings in a modern city.
Staff recently made a serious error on the wrong side of the Open Meetings Act by offering a remote participation option for members of the TIF Joint Review Board while barring the general public from the same option; the State’s Attorney’s Office had to step in to correct it. Better decisions could be made if council would stop ceding its authority in these matters to staff, who do not have the same motivation to take the side of the public. Conducting meetings is policy, and policy rightfully belongs with our elected representatives.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, it’s not. It does not show all the wages the Finance employees get paid. This is a budget that accounts only for the wages coming from the General Fund (the city’s chief operating fund). Finance staff also get paid portions of their wages from the Water Fund.
Total full- and part-time wages this year for Finance people are projected to come to $157,000 more than this Finance budget shows. Likewise, the Water Fund provides part of the compensation for the city manager’s office, Building & Code, HR, IT — even the city council.