Bill Nicklas, city manager of DeKalb, owns Nicklas Consulting, LLC. I did not know this until I read a complaint in which he is named a defendant. At the time of the discovery, I was the city clerk so I hesitated to address it publicly, especially when thinking of him as an abuser guarantees bias on my part. But a transparently biased view is better than not discussing these ethical issues at all, and it’s important we chip away at the impunity afforded some of our local leaders if we want to build a better local government.
So let me count the ways Nicklas Consulting is ethically problematic.
- The employment contract with DeKalb doesn’t allow side gigs. The contract states in three places that Mr. Nicklas is to work exclusively for City of DeKalb, with termination for cause an option if he engages in competing or other outside employment “without the express prior written consent of the Employer.” Since the employer is the city council, the approval would be hashed out in an open meeting, but this conversation has never happened.
- City of DeKalb policy reinforces the contract language. A rule from the employees’ handbook states city employees must obtain approval from their superiors to commence outside employment and to seek reapproval annually. Mr. Nicklas signed a form saying he had no outside employment, and then approved it himself. Maybe he suspended consulting activities for the city manager’s job, but the failure to discuss continued ownership prevented an evaluation of the appropriateness and potential consequences of maintaining the active status of the corporation. This is the council’s responsibility and purview, not Nicklas’.
- ICMA takes ethics seriously. The premier professional organization for managers in government, the International City/County Management Association, not only has crafted a strict code of conduct and ethics but also a structure for providing training, advice, and enforcement that can include public censure of members who violate the code. DeKalb city management do not pay dues to ICMA, but they are members of the state-level version of the organization, ILCMA, whose membership has adopted the ICMA ethics code. ICMA looks at outside employment the same way Nicklas’ contract and DeKalb’s personnel policies do: that outside work should be employer-approved in advance. The code furthermore states that conflicts of interest should be avoided, as well as even the appearance of conflicts of interest.
- The existence of Nicklas Consulting helps to create the appearance of a conflict of interest and partiality. According to the aforementioned complaint (that I hope you’ll read if you haven’t already) a developer who’s been a client for Nicklas’ services became a major investor in the TIF redevelopment project that replaced another TIF redevelopment project called 145 Fisk after Bill Nicklas convinced the city council to revoke its preliminary approval of Fisk. If Mr. Nicklas had dissolved his corporation upon accepting the manager’s position, he’d have provided less fodder for the plaintiff.