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.

That outburst had startled me a bit as I listened to the audio on my computer. I had to go back and watch it to try to see what had caused the commotion, but with it having occurred off camera I assumed he was yelling at one of the two who had commented, Bessie Chronopoulos or Steve Kapitan. Bessie later informed me that it was her mumbling something to herself which provoked him. My fellow co-moderator was speaking out of order despite not directing her comment at council. While being interrupted is frustrating, after a few awkward seconds of silence he didn’t really have anything more to add. So, it wasn’t serious enough to make this kind of reaction worthwhile. It only served to browbeat. This on top of the fact that he’s arguing in favor of rolling back opportunities for public comment to the minimum required by law sends the message of wanting to control the conversation and shut the public out.

I’ve decided that I’m going to apply the same general standards and expectations of conduct as ordinary citizens. There are multiple reasons for this, but the obvious one is because it is my intention to ensure that public officials are responsive to citizens. You can raise your voice, YOU CAN TYPE IN ALL CAPS, you can give the occasional insult in a good-natured ribbing.  If a citizen is responsible for some egregious harm to city council or the community, then the public officials should have a similar liberty to direct their ire at what they find objectionable. But any action that escalates conflict, makes anyone feel unwelcome to contribute to democratic discourse, or serves to censor speech is simply not appropriate, and that’s the case in this instance here. The mayor, as chair of the meeting, should do more to address such outbursts in the future.

– Sid

Related: “DeKalb City Council addresses public comment problems”

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

Alderman Marquardt is so very tired of you spoiled NIU students

Monday night, DeKalb’s city council members wrestled with proposed parking restrictions in neighorhoods adjacent to campus. Except for Ald. Mike Marquardt, who lost a wrestling match with his tongue.

At a local town hall meeting a few years ago, an audience member who pays attention to such things said the DeKalb-NIU relationship might be a “communiversity” but could fairly be considered a “commuterversity” as well.

Many of the “spoiled” students drive in from other neighborhoods and communities every day to attend NIU.

Many of the “spoiled” students have to go to work before and/or after class.

Many of the “spoiled” students drive because it keeps them safer from assault or worse.

And while I’m at it: These days, some students live in their cars.

Next time that little voice tells you to hold your tongue, Ald. Marquardt, perhaps you should listen, even if you have to bite it.

We’ll soon see what this council is made of

***Updated 6pm: Check out the city attorney’s “blooper” during last evening’s meeting when he explained why he advised the mayor to adjourn the meeting before council could vote on the matter at hand. I’ve placed a video clip of it at the end of this post, or you could click here for the clip and to comment on Facebook. ***

DeKalb’s city council violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA) yesterday. It was a violation because the city scheduled a special meeting for Good Friday, which is a legal holiday in this state. Specifically, OMA says this:

Sec. 2.01. All meetings required by this Act to be public shall be held at specified times and places which are convenient and open to the public. No meeting required by this Act to be public shall be held on a legal holiday unless the regular meeting day falls on that holiday.

You can easily find several state departments and offices where Good Friday is not observed, and obviously City of DeKalb doesn’t observe it. Doesn’t matter. If a statute establishes it as a holiday, it’s a legal holiday and you have to watch out for OMA.

And unlike meetings where you could goof up an OMA rule but then save your public body by not taking action (i.e., not actually voting on anything), the legal holiday rule says you can’t even hold the meeting without committing a violation.

I attended yesterday in order to congratulate the council on making a major change in management, to express my understanding of the huge undertaking in finding a new city manager, and to point out that the vacuum created by a city manager’s exit has led to major overspending in the past. Continue reading We’ll soon see what this council is made of

DeKalb playing favorites with the bandit in the castle

Cohen Barnes owns a building in downtown DeKalb under the name “The Bandit’s Castle, LLC.”

So he’s a bandit who bought a castle. Is this like the tv shows where the psychos leave little clues of their crimes? The imagination runs wild.

The thing with bandits is that, by definition, they belong to gangs. This is more or less what we saw last night, with City of DeKalb enabling Mr. Barnes to return to council to grab more TIF money since his rehab job on the Castle, for which he obtained a development incentive of $400,000 last spring, has hit a snag.

What’s the snag? Nobody anticipated that a 100-year-old building could have water damage and asbestos. No inspection was done, and no money for contingencies was set aside. It’s municipal malpractice, is what it is.

But due diligence doesn’t matter, because the city checkbook is simply always open for Mr. Barnes.

Many thanks go out to Aldermen David Jacobson and Mike Verbic, who voted against the double dipping. (Alderman Pat Fagan recused himself.)

Y’all folks in the Third, Fifth, and Seventh wards have a year to find replacements.

Noreiko worries about frozen pipes, just not yours

I’m still digesting the DeKalb city council’s goal-setting session from earlier this week.

The alderman from the Fifth Ward, Kate Noreiko, was pushing to build a new DeKalb Municipal Building instead of renovating the one we have. She says she thinks it’s unsafe, though she provided no foundation for this belief.

Part of Noreiko’s argument was that, if the pipes there freeze and burst, what would city workers do?

Hold that thought for a moment. I want to introduce another goal council members talked about evening, which was emergency operations planning. During that discussion, Noreiko wanted to address active shooter situations.

My mind went back to frozen pipes, because we don’t have SWAT teams for that.

Last month, 30,000 Com Ed customers in Kane, Will, and Kendall counties lost power during one of the days of extreme cold we had. Fortunately, the outage lasted only two hours. Continue reading Noreiko worries about frozen pipes, just not yours

DeKalb can become “business friendly” when this city manager is gone

DeKalb city council had another goal-setting session Tuesday evening.

It was a good session, as was last month’s, but at one point I had to laugh, and it was during the perennial make-DeKalb-more-business-friendly discussion.

I dearly wish more council members truly understood that friendliness is impossible under city manager Anne Marie Gaura. Unless you are one of a favored few, you run into a culture that not only disregards the basic tenets of good service, but systematically finds ways to make the going harder.

Alderman David Jacobson tried to explain this again Tuesday. He talked about “the hoops you have to jump through, and the games you have to play” as a local business owner.

Likewise, I’ve become an expert in the travails of the general public, and the latest example involves council’s establishment of a state-mandated “TIF interested parties registry” for the proposed new downtown TIF district. The TIF Redevelopment Act only requires that the city adopt “reasonable registration rules,” which this crew took as an opportunity to create something decidedly unfriendlier than what came before. Continue reading DeKalb can become “business friendly” when this city manager is gone