DeKalb city council voted to allow me to participate remotely in order to exclude you

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:

city-clerk-remote-participation-email

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.

Let’s get that on the agenda for July 27.

How red do the flags have to be?

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.
Continue reading How red do the flags have to be?

Municipal theft protections are not ‘set it and forget it’ and theft can happen here

When it comes to theft of public money in Illinois, Rita Crundwell probably comes to mind for most folks in DeKalb. At one time, however, the name was Orville Enoch Hodge. Hodge, as Illinois auditor of public accounts, stole $6 million in 1950s dollars, the equivalent of about $57 million today – and he accomplished this in a mere four years on the job.

Hodge was the reason for abolishing the office of state auditor and establishing the separate offices of Illinois comptroller and treasurer we have today. When these state-level offices come up for re-election now, we invariably hear calls for consolidating the two to save money, but I’ll bet we wouldn’t if we could manage to remember how much Hodge cost us.

Crundwell, like Hodge, acted as both treasurer and controller of the City of Dixon, meaning she controlled both the money coming in and the money going out. But jackpot-sized hauls aside, municipal theft is common, according to the Illinois Municipal League (IML). IML laid out a series of articles about prevention of municipal theft in the October 2019 volume of its Review Magazine, and about treasurer and controller said, “Separating those positions is a simple and effective control, requiring the numbers to match on both sides of the equation.”

Continue reading Municipal theft protections are not ‘set it and forget it’ and theft can happen here

Taking away the city clerk’s role in checks and balances

Jumping off my last post and recent discussion of it, I want to share a little more of the context in which I currently attempt to function as city clerk in DeKalb.

This time last year, I signed and sealed some contracts and all plats, ordinances, resolutions, and licenses. Hundreds of documents crossed my desk in my first months as DeKalb city clerk. But beginning last spring, following a decision to move a large portion of license processing from the finance division to the city manager’s office, others began signing licenses without my knowledge. These incidents snowballed after the request for my resignation last July, and with the city council’s October 14 passage of amendments to the clerk’s ordinances, the flow of documents slowed, then dried up altogether before the end of 2019.

Except for meeting minutes, I haven’t signed a thing since mid-December.

Continue reading Taking away the city clerk’s role in checks and balances

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

Pardon the interruption…

I’m going to begin this blog post by pointing out that on the City Barbs group we don’t adhere to strict standards of civility. Instead, we try to permit heated moments in which citizens may vent their frustration at public officials. If a citizen is justifiably aggrieved, expressing their anger how they see fit helps to communicate just how abhorrent the situation has become.

I find myself in this quasi-media role as a political forum moderator and blogger with a dilemma about what to do when a public official begins to write abrasive posts in response to constituents. You can ordinarily expect them to act professionally. However, serving in office can be a thankless job, especially in high conflict communities where listening to every lamentation and ill-informed opinion can be grating on one’s patience, and occasionally there are instances when they lose their temper. I have wondered if perhaps those who volunteer to do it deserve a little clemency every once in a while.

On Monday, February 11th, the City Council discussed an ordinance to amend the rules for public comment. Those who regularly participate know that there is public participation at the beginning for speaking about anything that is not on the agenda, and then there’s also discussion reserved before each agenda item. This has often led to members of the public waiting hours through long meetings before having any opportunity to speak to their item of interest. The ordinance presented would move all public comment to the beginning except for people who “have a unique standing relative to a given item.” The trade-off to this is that if someone wanted to speak to an item on the agenda and also some other matter not germane to anything on the agenda, it would diminish the total time they would be afforded.

Now, I want to draw attention to Alderman Fagan’s remarks.

Continue reading Pardon the interruption…

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

Mayor Smith’s first year

Daily Chronicle offered a recap today of DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith’s first year as mayor. It’s refreshing to find myself in agreement with much of the assessment of the current situation, though I still have serious concerns.

“I think most citizens are pretty much aligned with what we as a council are trying to do by being the most efficient and frugal government we can,” Smith said. “I hope that nobody looks at my first year and thinks we aren’t responsive.”

In my opinion, we have the most responsive and inclusive city council this town has seen in years.

“I realize there’s still a sector of the community that doesn’t trust what goes on with the City Council, and in some cases that’s fairly and rightfully so,” [First Ward Alderman David] Jacobson said. “But based on the last few years, I believe this group we have now, including Jerry, not only care about the community but are willing to work collaboratively and focus on the issues to make some really positive headway.”

Yep. Overall, that’s how I see it, too.

That was put to the test when the city unexpectedly condemned Lord Stanley’s Bar and Annex, 142 E. Lincoln Highway, and Common Grounds, 150 E. Lincoln Highway, because of structural concerns in April.

Smith took responsibility for the actions that were taken and admitted that the situation was handled “very, very poorly.”

Here’s where they lose me. Continue reading Mayor Smith’s first year