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:
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.
Last 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.
Let’s start by reviewing what almost happened here a couple months ago. The city manager in DeKalb decided she wanted to raise the sales tax, claiming complete inability to balance a budget without it.
Having the highest sales tax around is not the greatest business move, but despite financial consultants’ adamant warnings against it, city administrators sold it hard. If we hadn’t turned over a couple of staff-compliant electeds in last spring’s elections, the measure likely would have passed.
And your instincts surely tell you that, if DeKalb lost home rule powers and had to go to referendum to invent or raise a tax, it just might discourage bureaucrats and legislators from floating the idea every time they want a new toy.
Home rule in DeKalb can be exhausting.
City of Rockford had home rule at one time, but the residents took it away 35 years ago. Rockford aldermen are now asking voters to give them another chance, by passing ordinances that limit their own powers. Here’s an example:
Among the self-limiting ordinances approved was one that has raised significant concern — that leaders would have the power as a home-rule authority to raise property taxes at will, behind closed doors, or as high as they wish without voter approval. Under the ordinance, taxes cannot exceed the non-home rule limit established under the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (PTELL).
Far be it from me to tell Rockford residents what to do, but may I point out that ordinances can be repealed. Let’s say voters pass home rule. Probably the current council would abide by them, but what would stop a future council from reversing these actions?
Depending upon its collective capacity for shame, the answer would range from “not much” to “nothing.”
DeKalb’s council is made up of seven aldermen chosen by ward and a mayor. Aldermen seemed interested Monday in establishing a rule that would call for at least four aldermen to be in favor of a measure before it could pass.
On most questions brought before council, a simple majority vote is all that’s needed, and the mayor doesn’t (or at least isn’t supposed to) vote. Council already needs to have four in most situations.
What this potential proposal would do is impose the requirement of a super-majority vote on council if even one alderman is absent. And in the scenario of the non-voting mayor and four aldermen, unanimous votes would be required to get anything done. And for what good reason?
This is, in short, not smart. It’s a bad solution for a non-existent problem. It rarely happens that even two council members are absent for any council meeting. What’s more, one situation where we might anticipate the absence of several council members would be a special meeting to deal with an emergency. To be shackled with a super-majority or unanimous vote requirement could have awful implications when time is of the essence for decision-making.
No, as long as the quorum of five is met for conducting the city’s business, leave the voting rules for aldermen alone.
In a post from January 10, I told you I’d continue trying to get information about the state’s Public Library Construction Grant Program since we knew so few of the institutions that won them.
Part of the reason it has taken so long to get back to you is that I goofed up my chance to fight for the information. Yep, I sure did. Since the Illinois State Library had always responded quite fully and promptly to previous Freedom of Information Act requests, I didn’t bother to make a copy of the request for the list of awardees. This time they denied me the document and I was unable to ask for a review of the decision because under FOIA you must provide a copy of the original FOIA request along with the Request for Review.
We return our attention to Bell, California. Administrators and council members there paid themselves exorbitant salaries while cutting city services, overcharging taxes and fees, and creating a major municipal revenue source out of a vehicle impounding program.
Five former council members were found guilty of stealing public money. Two former city administrators are still awaiting trial.
Key factors in the corruption seem to include a lack of oversight — Bell does not have its own newspaper — an aggressive city manager “mastermind,” and Bell’s status as a charter city, which allows its government to ignore state limits on salaries and other spending.
Site news: Posting is sure to remain very light through the rest of March and into April as the write-in campaign for city clerk continues. One way to be notified when I’ve posted is to visit or ask to join the City Barbs Facebook group if you use FB a lot.
While the Mt. Vernon pro-home rule group won with 57% of the vote, there was a veritable smackdown by 70% of voters of the proposition to make the city clerk’s office in DeKalb an appointed one. It’s difficult not to look at this as a referendum on city administration, and on the performance of city manager Mark Biernacki in particular. Let him laugh at the suggestion that the ballot question was an attempted power grab — that doesn’t make it untrue.
With the retention of an elected city clerk, congenitally optimistic residents like me can hope for a real watchdog in the position.
Lastly, I’d like to note that City Barbs is now seven years old.
Treat this as an open thread if you like. Name yer topic.
When the Trib covered the Rosemont story a few weeks ago, it looked at Home Rule but more tangentially. This time, the poster child is Bellwood and Home Rule, which gives municipalities free rein on borrowing and taxation, is front and center:
The vast majority of states — including all of the largest ones — do not offer municipalities such blank checks.
Ken Small of the Florida League of Cities said he would worry if his state had Illinois’ loose rules.
“It is like giving your teenager a credit card,” he said.
In Illinois’ home-rule municipalities, the onus is on voters to decipher the financial ramifications of what their local officials are doing. And even then, residents may only get a say come election time, and only if their local officials face competition on the ballot.
DeKalb residents never really get a say, because in addition to Home Rule it has the council-manager form of government. This means the CEO is the appointed city manager, not the mayor. Not only that, but the city manager has an employment contract with no expiration date on it. And furthermore we’ve been cursed with councils that, for whatever reason, don’t think we can do better.