City of DeKalb does not want you to come to this meeting

Tonight is a special meeting of the DeKalb city council. Unlike all other council meetings, this meeting will not be recorded on video. That’s because the city does not know how to video-record meetings outside of council chambers, and council is not meeting in chambers tonight, even though this is the only city meeting scheduled.

Instead, they’re holding it in the Bilder room at DeKalb Public Library. I understand that the Bilder room holds about 30 people. If true, it’s a potential problem, because it’s a committee of the whole meeting, where the number of participating city staff will likely outnumber the council members, and leave — maybe — seating for only about 15 members of the general public.

If more people show up than the room can reasonably hold, that’s an Open Meetings Act violation.

The venue makes no sense.

The vague agenda item is also questionable when it comes to OMA: “Goal-setting session.” That’s it. Fortunately, staff were a little less lazy about putting together the agenda packet for the finance advisory committee (whose meeting has been rescheduled for January 30, FYI) so I’m able to share more. The memo to FAC says this:

On January 24, 2018, the City Council will hold a Goal Setting Session to determine what goals they want to accomplish in 2018. As part of that session, the Council would be asked to identify short-term and long-term goals. Specifically, goals or projects they would like to address in the next one to two years would be identified. This would determine what subject areas Council wants staff to focus their time on and could impact the current and future budgets. Council will be asked to identify the broad outcomes to be accomplished in the next 18 months to three-and-a-half years.

But that’s not all. I’ve attended several planning sessions over the four years of city manager Anne Marie Gaura’s tenure. She is incapable of hiding her hostility toward us. They place the tables in an enclosed rectangle so the audience is facing people’s backs, and between this unfortunate positioning and their failure to use microphones, what you hear is dependent on the projection skills of each individual. Meanwhile, the audience has to wait an average of four hours for a chance to speak to its representatives, after all the decisions have been made.

It’s sketchy. Unacceptable. A 100% shut-out in every meaningful way.

Which is exactly why you should attend if you can.

Sorry, Mayor Smith. DeKalb’s city attorney works for the city manager, not you

Sometime during the six-hour-long regular city council meeting last Monday, the mayor asserted that the city attorney works for the city council. This is incorrect information, and the real story must be understood NOW to help people understand why the city might have just placed potential litigation with the county on the table.

Exhibit A: DeKalb’s organizational chart (from the proposed fiscal 2018 budget).

If the city attorney worked for city council, he’d show up in a relationship to city council. But he doesn’t. The city attorney is a contractor who — as all contractors do at this point — work for city manager Anne Marie Gaura. And let me tell you, it’s a very close working relationship. Continue reading Sorry, Mayor Smith. DeKalb’s city attorney works for the city manager, not you

Reasons to allow the city manager’s contract to expire

City council is expected to vote tonight on a resolution to “amend” city manager Anne Marie Gaura’s employment agreement, which currently expires at the end of this year.

My main concern with the vote itself is that it involves the removal of the expiration date from the contract, even though the DeKalb Municipal Code says the city manager “shall serve and hold office for a term of office specified by virtue of an employment agreement.” For this reason alone, I urge a “no” vote on the resolution.

But there are performance issues as well. Here are some of the major ones, in my opinion.

1. Failure to cooperate with, and render assistance to, elected officials. These are responsibilities required by the Municipal Code (3.08(b)). Yet Gaura deprived city clerk Liz Cliffe Peerboom of the basic tools of the job, including a desk and computer. She has also failed to comply with city council members’ requests for financial information, and brazenly ignored a residency requirement in recruiting an IT director.

2. Inability to produce a budget that covers the basics. Gaura has presented budgets that always include new hires to her inner circle at the expense of other needs. Our five-year outlook is so grim that finance advisory committee members have pledged to keep working on the fiscal 2018 budget into fiscal 2018, in order to try to make adjustments that will nudge the trajectory into more solvent territory. DeKalb has also struggled with deficiencies in internal accounting controls during Gaura’s tenure, according to the city’s auditors.

3. Damaged relations with residents, business people, and even another unit of local government. In a series of unforced errors, Gaura has had to walk back actions that took the community by surprise. The unlawful assembly and commercial inspection ordinances, for example, popped up on council agendas without previous community discussion and caused a great deal of dismay and distrust, not to mention the resources wasted in having to go back to the drawing board.

4. Inability or unwillingness to rein in staff. Gaura’s failure to set boundaries with her administrative team has allowed a range of unprofessional behavior, from the city attorney’s inappropriate participation in policy discussions, to the FOIA officer’s calling citizens liars with impunity. Staff do not even pretend at professional objectivity anymore, but rather have become a sales team for pet projects. They engage in hard-sell tactics and sometimes lie to get their way.

We can do better, DeKalb.

Feel free to join City Barbs on Facebook with your two cents.

Handling of DeKalb city manager’s contract renewal is an ugly bit of manipulation — and inconsistent with the ordinance as well

Anne Marie Gaura’s employment agreement with City of DeKalb expires at the end of 2017. That is, it expires unless a resolution presented as a contract “amendment” gets passed by city council on Monday.

They’ve placed the item as a resolution to amend the employment agreement on Monday’s council meeting agenda. But it is not just an amendment to DeKalb’s contract with Anne Marie Gaura. It is a renewal, because the amendment removes the expiration date from the contract.

And removal of the expiration date clearly goes against Chapter 3 of the DeKalb Municipal Code, which says this:

Appointment and Removal. The City Manager shall be appointed by the Mayor and Council voting jointly. The City Manager shall serve and hold office for a term of office specified by virtue of an employment agreement.

If you believe the people of DeKalb deserve an up-or-down vote on a contract renewal that includes the legally mandated term of office, please share your views with council members.

DeKalb’s growth in personnel expenses

There’s another special city council meeting, specifically a budget meeting, set for this evening. It’s apparently a follow-up of what they discussed last week.

On Thursday, the council held a joint meeting with the finance advisory committee to outline a proposed 5 percent reduction in city department budgets for fiscal 2018. This equates to nine full-time positions and 11 part-time positions being dropped and nearly $20 million being cut.

I watched the joint council-FAC meeting that the newspaper is referring to, and it did not look like there was much cutting of staff happening. With few exceptions, department heads talked about cutting expenses in a one-off manner. For example, they suggested simply not contributing the usual $12,000 to IHSA this year, and cutting non-critical training, and putting off purchases of equipment and software. In other words, the show was pretty much the same juggling act they do every year. Continue reading DeKalb’s growth in personnel expenses

Anatomy of DeKalb’s proposals for a sales tax hike

That’s not a typo in the headline. There are, I believe, two proposals for a sales tax hike of one cent for fiscal 2018. One comes from DeKalb city administrators, the other from the city’s finance advisory committee (FAC).

Here’s the proposal staff put into the draft budget:

proposed increase of sales tax

Sales tax for hiring police officers? Sales tax for “operations stabilization?” These people have run out of money for day-to-day expenses. The hiring spree chickens have come home to roost. Continue reading Anatomy of DeKalb’s proposals for a sales tax hike

Chief Lowery doesn’t want you at meetings if you don’t have anything nice to say

DeKalb’s police chief, Eugene Lowery, is so very, very tired of your negativity. Here’s what he said at Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting of council.

I want you to hear everyone’s voice. Not the voices of the few that walk up to this podium, and day in and day out, or week in and week out, have nothing but negative things to say.

In this setting (or so my 12 years of watchdogging the city tell me) “negativity” is substituted for the more accurate word “disagreement.” It’s a device the bureaucrats occasionally use to try to silence and marginalize people who disagree with their ideas, goals and methods.

But I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a city employee straight-up tell the city council who to listen to. That part may be unprecedented.

More from Chief Lowery:

God, I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to say it anyway. I believe Brendan Behan was an Episcopalian bishop, I think it was, like, late 1800s. He said this: “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they are unable to do it themselves.”*

Continue reading Chief Lowery doesn’t want you at meetings if you don’t have anything nice to say

TIF spending for streets in FY16 did not come anywhere near what DeKalb is claiming

The setup: During the special Committee of the Whole meeting of Monday evening, DeKalb council members were discussing with staff a proposed budget reduction in 2018 for the street improvement program in our two TIF districts, specifically a staff recommendation to cut in half the usual $1 million budgeted for streets in the TIFs. During the course of this discussion, Alderman David Jacobson asked whether the money budgeted in the TIFs for previous years actually got spent. Here’s the actual transcripted exchange:

Jacobson: One other question, only because it was something that was brought up this afternoon to me. I know there was a question last year about– I think it was in the 16-and-a-half budget, if I’m correct, that the council asked for a million-dollar budget in the TIFs for road expenditures, and there was some question as to whether or not that was ever spent?

Public Works Director Tim Holdeman: Absolutely, that was spent. That was in our road program for this year; we have completed that street maintenance, both in TIF 1 and TIF 2 districts. I don’t have the final numbers, but it’s very close to a million dollars. It bid out at about $990,000. So with the engineering, we were right at– we were a little bit above a million, but we could supplement that with Fund 50, so…[crosstalk]

Jacobson: And was that the same in ’16 as well?

Holdeman: For ’16?

Jacobson: The full million for ’16?

Holdeman: Yes, that was the same for fiscal year ’16, yes.

Holdeman’s comments make it sound like the city spent $1 million out of the TIF funds in FY16, another $1 million in FY17, and maybe something in between, during that six-month budget period they call FY16.5. But these claims are not demonstrably true at this point. The FY16 audited numbers are available, and as I reported earlier this year,* the TIF reports filed with the Illinois Comptroller show that not quite $115,000 was spent in the TIF districts on street improvements during FY16 — nowhere near the budgeted $1 million. Continue reading TIF spending for streets in FY16 did not come anywhere near what DeKalb is claiming

Why I’m alleging DeKalb violated the Open Meetings Act yesterday

During a special meeting of the city council yesterday, I alleged that City of DeKalb had not given sufficient notice of the meeting, in that DeKalb did not explicitly name a location for it.

The city maintains that it gave sufficient notice because the agenda was printed on city letterhead, which includes the address of the Municipal Building. I believe letterhead may be sufficient for a regular meeting but not for a special meeting.

From merely a practical standpoint, consider that DeKalb often holds special meetings in special places, not just the Muni Building. As an example, I’ve attended special meetings of council at NIU, the library — even once on a bus. People who attend city meetings know about this aspect of special meetings, and the lack of location information caused confusion among the public yesterday.

There are legal considerations as well. Let’s explore them. Continue reading Why I’m alleging DeKalb violated the Open Meetings Act yesterday

Mayor Smith runs from Freedom of Information right smack into the First Amendment

I went to a special city council meeting last night, where I noted two odd occurrences.

First off, Aaron Stevens attended. Stevens is DeKalb’s Freedom of Information Act officer, but there was nothing on the agenda about FOIA.

The second weird thing was the attentiveness of council members. Gone were the usual tablet-tapping movements and studied indifference as I shared my views during the citizen comment portion of the evening. They were rather intent, if you get what I mean. Expectant, even.

Afterward I was talking in the city hall parking lot with a neighbor who said I should catch the video of Monday’s regular council meeting (August 28) because the mayor called out some of us who have been critical of the FOIA Center and the way it was and is being deployed.

In view of the information from my neighbor, my observations of the odd suddenly made sense to me. I realized that a portion of the room must have anticipated that I would use my public comment time to respond to Mayor Smith’s remarks from Monday. However, I hadn’t attended or watched Monday’s meeting by that point. Not knowing anything about the specifics, I’d stuck to talking about the Streets budget as directed by the meeting agenda.

Today I find that the Daily Chronicle has reported on the Monday remarks, and it occurs to me that some were probably expecting not only my comments on them but also, perhaps, a mayoral smackdown of yours truly. Continue reading Mayor Smith runs from Freedom of Information right smack into the First Amendment