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

Story of Dixon sparks ideas for preventing fraud and building trust in city government

Last night I went to the Egyptian Theatre to watch “All the Queen’s Horses,” the documentary of Rita Crundwell’s embezzlement of more than $53 million from City of Dixon when she was treasurer-comptroller there.

I won’t spoil the film, because even a person who followed Crundwell’s arrest and the aftermath quite closely is bound to find a couple of surprises. If you haven’t seen it, you deserve an equal opportunity to scrape your jaw off the floor once or twice. 🙂

Let’s explore, instead, the general lack of curiosity, assertiveness or persistence, when red flags pop up, to get questions answered to one’s satisfaction.

Why do so many people ignore questionable activities? A lot of it’s the expected consequences. If you reported potentially illegal behavior at your workplace, would your employer give lip service but ignore the problem, address the party involved, or plot retaliation for you? I’ll bet you don’t have to think much about it to answer. Chances are you’ve interacted enough with the culture there to know already. Continue reading Story of Dixon sparks ideas for preventing fraud and building trust in city government

DeKalb’s credibility is suddenly becoming visible to the naked eye

“Folks, we blew it,” said the mayor.

Mayor Jerry Smith recalled his previous State of the City assertion that DeKalb must “acknowledge our shortcomings and our mistakes” last night, when he brought up DeKalb’s violation of the Open Meetings Act of last Friday. “We blew it” is what he told the staff members involved, he said.

Last Friday was Good Friday, a state-recognized holiday in Illinois. The Open Meetings Act prohibits special meetings on legal holidays, but nobody stopped the special meeting until it was almost finished.

The confessions weren’t perfect. Attorney Dean Frieders and interim city manager Patty Hoppenstedt behaved like graceless children. Frieders buried an almost-apology inside of a speech taking three-plus minutes, and he used the “royal we” instead of taking personal responsibility. Hoppenstedt said she took the matter “seriously and personally” but couldn’t resist a smirk.

Still, a public admission of wrongdoing was a breakthrough, as was the city’s complete do-over of the illegal meeting.

I commend the mayor for his handling of the affair.

Here’s video of the meeting, cued up to where the mayor begins his remarks.

Between the departure of a feckless city manager and now this, things are definitely looking up.

Video of today’s meeting for 4th and 6th wards

The council members held it at the DeKalb Township building, and about 20 people from the 4th, 5th, and 6th wards attended.

The last time I can remember going to a meeting in my ward was 2005, so this was a pretty big deal to me.

They didn’t disappoint.

I’ve posted it at the City Barbs Facebook Group as well, and I expect most comments, if any, will end up there.

More Reasons to Put the Brakes on the STEAM Center Project

Several of DeKalb’s city council members balked at making financial or other commitments to the STEAM center project until they have in hand a thorough analysis of its most important source of funding, the soon-to-be-retired Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts.

Even the most worthy projects are subject to resource limitations, so a peek into the municipal wallet and thoughtful prioritization make good sense, and are probably the most important reasons to apply the brakes.

But there are other reasons, too. Here are three of them.

1. It’s not our job. It’s not automatically the duty of the city to pick up the slack on an NIU project, especially one that NIU itself has decided it can’t spare a dime for. Public safety and infrastructure are supposed to be the names of our games, but now the consultant and administrators are broaching consideration of involvement in site selection, governance, even operations. Boundaries, people.

2. The push is premature. This is a top-down pet project headed by city administrators who have clearly done most of the work, and last week’s special meeting was clearly about hard-selling our new electeds into supporting it. But there is no sign of any corresponding surge in public support. No organization has stepped up to pledge financial support for its construction and operation. It’s an entirely backwards process, which bodes ill for fundraising efforts. If STEAM gets approved at this point, we will all get stuck with the bill.

3. The TIF goal is unclear. As proposed, the project tells us little about ROI, which in a TIF district means raising EAV in the district. In fact, at least initially it would do the opposite, by taking another large property off the tax rolls.

I want to note that counil members David Jacobson and Michael Verbic have asked for financial analyses before (Verbic as a Financial Advisory Committee member), and they’ve been completely ignored in the past. The unified insistence on the TIF analysis is a welcome move, and I hope it means this council aims to reclaim its full authority in stewardship. Fingers crossed.

An Important Amendment to the Open Meetings Act

I knew the General Assembly was debating the bill last year, but missed the August passage of Public Act 099-0402, which amends an important provision of the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA).

(5 ILCS 120/3.5)
Sec. 3.5. Public Access Counselor; opinions.
(a) A person who believes that a violation of this Act by a public body has occurred may file a request for review with the Public Access Counselor established in the Office of the Attorney General not later than 60 days after the alleged violation. If facts concerning the violation are not discovered within the 60-day period, but are discovered at a later date,
not exceeding 2 years after the alleged violation, by a person utilizing reasonable diligence, the request for review may be made within 60 days of the discovery of the alleged violation.

(Emphasis in original, to mark the amended language.)

Discovering an OMA violation beyond the old 60-day deadline was a teeth-gnasher, and happened more often than you’d think. This amendment should make a real difference.

New Illinois Law for Local Gov Audits Is Doing the Trick

Here’s a new state law we can all get behind: Public Act 098-0738, which requires certain disclosures pertaining to city and county audits.

Introduced by Rep. Tom Demmer, the law went into effect this month. Here’s another version with the deets.

Of particular interest to me is the now-required sharing of the auditors’ letters to management that accompany each audit. It was just a couple years ago that a tipster told me there was such a thing. Once aware of their existence, I began making Freedom of Information Act requests for these letters, and boy have they ever been illuminating. Just look at the posts I’ve done:

City of DeKalb Had ‘Excess Expenditures’ of $3.1 Million in FY2013

DeKalb’s Police Department Overspent by $700,000 last fiscal year

The latest management letter, for FY2015, was published with the annual financial report in the December 14 council meeting agenda. Start on p. 19 of the PDF. Notice the addition of the management response to each item of concern, too.

What a difference good transparency laws can make. Hats off to Rep. Demmer.

Hats off to anonymous tipsters, too.

DeKalb’s Freakishly High Sales Tax Rate Might Actually be Good for Something

**Update** 1/26. Related: “Sales tax coffers could get boost with new law”. Discusses the Marketplace Fairness Act and its impact (if it ever passes the U.S. House) on state revenues.
**Update** 1 p.m. Related: “Now comes the Internet Sales Consultants”. It provides more food for thought on this scheme, as well as a description of an omission that sounds like a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act.

DeKalb’s city council is considering a new kind of retail revenue source. You should know about it because your tax money is involved.

Chronicle:

City leaders are trying to lure Internet retailers with an 85 percent sales-tax rebate.

The first step in the coaxing process came Monday when aldermen unanimously approved an agreement with a shell company called Great Lakes Economic Development LLC.

The company was created by Tom McPeak, a partner with Atlanta-based Barnwell Consulting, who said he has an undisclosed client interested in setting up shop in DeKalb.

McPeak is an acquaintance of Roger Hopkins. Hopkins used to head the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation, and after that contracted with the city to provide economic development services for a time. And it looks like he’s done us a solid in facilitating an introduction.

Let’s take a closer look at the potential in this gift. Continue reading DeKalb’s Freakishly High Sales Tax Rate Might Actually be Good for Something

Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Turns out, City of DeKalb’s press release this week about hiring outside help has a backstory, and the Daily Chronicle has unearthed it..

New DeKalb City Manager Anne Marie Gaura wants the city to hire an outside financial expert after staff recently broke rules for making purchases in excess of $20,000.

First, the council approved the changes to city hall that included moving the finance office to the first floor and upgrading security. When city staff sought council approval, $14,000 in work had been completed, but the project was slated to cost $36,000. During their last meeting, aldermen approved a $22,864 expenditure for fitness equipment at the police station that had already been purchased using administrative tow funds.

“This just goes to the long history of the organization,” Gaura said. “It wasn’t anything intentional, but it indicated to me we need to improve our purchasing policies.”

Wow, dig it. The new city manager is saying it’s not OK to come to council for authorization to exceed the $20,000 spending authority after the fact. Think about what that might mean for fiscal discipline and accountability in DeKalb if the city manager is a stickler for the rules.

State of Illinois Changes Bond Counsel

This post updates one from August about Ty Fahner, partner of the law firm Mayer Brown, who told the Chicago Civic Committee the following last spring:

Last March, during a Civic Committee discussion of the state’s public pension problems, Fahner claimed that some members had talked to bond ratings agencies about lowering Illinois’ bond rating to create more pressure for pension reform.

Lowered bond ratings lead to higher borrowing costs, which is bad enough. Worse yet, Mayer Brown was Illinois’ contracted bond counsel for a million a year.

Let’s just say the optics were bad.

And yes, I did write that Mayer Brown “was” the state’s bond counsel. The Quinn administration announced it has selected another firm, Chapman & Cutler, to serve in its place.

Thought you’d like to know that the right thing happened.

(Tip o’ the hat, once again, to Capitol Fax.)