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

Will DeKalb learn from the departure of Tinez Tacos?

tinez tacos in maltaLast weekend I found out that the owners of the Tinez Tacos food truck have worked out a parking spot in Malta, and will serve from 11am to 7pm weekdays this summer at Hickey’s Corner Store.

If comments at the City Barbs Facebook group are any indication, residents of DeKalb wish them well in their new location. They’ve obviously picked up local goodwill.

City of DeKalb, though, not so much.

If you haven’t been following this story, it’s about the Tinez folks’ mobilizing toward more affordable options, since DeKalb charges monthly license fees that bear no relation to reasonable administrative costs. The city also collects sales taxes — our home-ruled restaurant/bar tax pushes taxes to 10% of a tab — so the ongoing fees are double-dips, too.

The question is whether the city will get a handle on the greed, ineptitude, and/or hostility that this money-grubbing behavior represents. With an improved city council and a pending change of city manager, it’s possible. Unfortunately, staff members so far are busily playing the victim in the story. Continue reading Will DeKalb learn from the departure of Tinez Tacos?

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.

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 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

City’s water bill issue a symptom of a larger problem

***Updates 2/8: City says no double-billing was involved, so I’ve deleted statements below to the contrary. I do intend to look at 2017 billing cycle dates to confirm the bases for bills from previous months. That the error mostly affects customers on the south side has been confirmed. City remains silent on the plight of customers on fixed incomes, and the criticism of poor communication still stands.***

By now, you’ve received your utility bill (water, sewer, garbage) from City of DeKalb. Does it seem high? If so, chances are the culprit is your water bill. Here’s the explanation:

[O]ne of the mobile meter reading devices was not functioning correctly. The data from the reader did not load the route information to the computer and therefore, that December 2017 reading was not captured. The device was sent for repair and upon return of the device, the route was read again (mid- January 2018). This second read occurred approximately 20 days after the first reading. For this route, this translates to a larger utility bill that is due by February 21, 2018. The next bill, due April 21, 2018, will be smaller by the 20 days that were included on the previous billing. Finance staff at the front counter and answering phone calls will continue to provide this information to the residents.

I have requested more information about the area(s) affected, and what the city proposes to do to accommodate people who will have problems coming up with another $40 or $50 this month that they didn’t expect?

So far, the members of the City Barbs Facebook Group have figured out that DeKalb’s south side is involved in the screwup.

Why does the city even have a website and social media accounts? They do not know how to use them.

It’s like they’re unraveling over there

City of DeKalb seems to have a lot more trouble than usual lately with day-to-day operations. Let me count the ways.

1. I turned on my laptop at 5 pm last evening to watch Mayor Smith’s State of the City address, but the meeting was not streaming — some kind of technical issue. Later I found out this has been a problem since January 8.

2. Bright and early yesterday, I put in a request for accommodation of a disability during Wednesday’s special council meeting, because it’s not being held in council chambers (where the disability is already accommodated). Whenever I’ve made the request before — of anyone, anywhere — there’s never been a problem with getting what I need. But not only was there lag time in responding, today I opened up an email that says the city will be “investigating” my request. Continue reading It’s like they’re unraveling over there

A fresh look at “old” financial advice for DeKalb

At a recent budget meeting, DeKalb city manager Anne Marie Gaura (AMG) stated that she references the “EPI reports” frequently in financial planning.

Because the city’s finance advisory committee might likewise like to revisit EPI findings when it (the committee) reconvenes in 2018, I’d like to introduce EPI to our newer readers (and help refresh memories).

EPI stands for Executive Partners, Inc., which is the former name of an organization of financial consultants who, in 2009 and 2013, tried to help DeKalb think more strategically about its finances.

Here’s EPI’s Larry Kujovich in the spring of 2013, talking about DeKalb’s gigantic financial hole.


Continue reading A fresh look at “old” financial advice for DeKalb

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.

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