Mayor Rey accepted the gift of a trip worth more than $1,000 in September 2013, according to Northern Illinois University records recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Rey and NIU President Doug Baker traveled to Moscow, Idaho, to foster better “town-gown” relations and to take in a football game between NIU and the University of Idaho.
NIU paid for the mayor’s plane tickets and reimbursed him for his hotel stay. See the documentation here.
State of Illinois rules allow for some exceptions to its gift ban, such as travel expenses incurred “to discuss State business” and for “intergovernmental gifts” and these exceptions have no specified monetary limits. DeKalb has adopted state rules in their entirety into its Municipal Code, so it doesn’t appear any were broken.
However, that should not preclude the public from making judgments about Rey’s judgment, the size of the gift (which, after all, involves public funds) and its implications for town and gown.
And Illinois law does allow local governments to pass ethics ordinances that are more restrictive than what’s on the state books.
In her article about Ron Walter’s background and employment at Northern Illinois University under President Doug Baker, Kelly Bauer noted that the consultant was paid even when his calendar indicated he had no scheduled work.
It appears Bauer intended to get to the bottom of it — the above article is labeled Part One — but Baker refused to talk to Northern Star staff about the matter.
Fortunately, the response to the Freedom of Information Act request that enabled us to understand Walters’ refusal to return improperly reimbursed travel expenses also sheds light on the special pay arrangement between Walters and Baker. Continue reading Ron Walters’ Pay Arrangement with NIU
Earlier this month, the Daily Chronicle gave us an update:
An audit of the university in March, completed by Illinois Auditor General William G. Holland, found that NIU had improperly reimbursed [Ron] Walters and also didn’t comply with a variety of guidelines for internal control and processes related to procurement and contracts.
Walters had received $31,945 of travel compensation. which shouldn’t have been provided because the cost was from traveling between the university and his home in Washington.[sic]
“Travel expenses between an employee’s official headquarters and home are not reimbursable,” the audit reads.
What the Chronicle did not explain was why Walters is refusing to reimburse the university. Luckily for us, a citizen requested records under the Freedom of Information Act pertaining to Walters’ work for NIU and has shared them.
I’ve placed key documents that tell the story here.
The latest in the College Town Partners saga is that NIU has apparently changed its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policy. It now favors heavy redaction.
The following is NIU’s response this week to a FOIA request made by Misty Haji-Sheikh of the north Fifth Ward group called Preserve Our Neighborhoods.
Click on the Twitter image for the full-sized view.
Only two bits of meaningful information are left: the subject matter and the recipient of the email. The city would have us believe that its newbie city manager wasn’t really involved in College Town Partners, but now one could reasonably assume Gaura has swum in the thick of things since early in her tenure — or perhaps even before that.
Let’s look at some more. Continue reading NIU Must Think We Have Enough Info on College Town Partners Already
For all of NIU’s having publicly “backed away” from a partnership for redevelopment with City of DeKalb et al last spring, it seems the institution had already secretly created a “charity” with a local developer and a banker in December 2013 for similar purposes.
The documents were Tweeted to me.
Continue reading Documents: College Town Partners NFP
In July 2013, the city council of DeKalb approved the DeKalb City Center plan, an update of the 2007 Downtown Revitalization Plan.
One of the key components of the plan is:
Leverage TIF to study the feasibility of and potentially promote the development of additional City Center traffic generators, such as a hotel/conference center, children’s museum, bowling alley, movie theater, or additional dining and entertainment options[.]
Except that by the time the plan was approved, DeKalb had already begun leveraging TIF to study the feasibility of a downtown hotel and convention center.
And had already begun negotiating with a developer.
And was already talking about helping to close a “feasibility gap” with public funds.
Why haven’t you heard about this? It’s because of the city manager’s spending authority. The city manager can authorize up to $20,000 in spending without going to the city council for approval. In the case of the hotel/convention center, the first study — dated January 2013 — cost $12,000. A supplement was completed this year for $7,500.
You can look at some of the documents, obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, at the City Barbs Blog Facebook Group.
Let’s start with a summary of events.
— The group now known as Preserve Our Neighborhoods (PON) was formed last spring in response to concerns that residents were not being included in DeKalb-NIU redevelopment plans that would directly affect them.
— Misty Haji-Sheikh of PON received unsigned documents from an anonymous sender regarding a corporation formed for the purpose of redeveloping the John Street neighborhood.
— The corporation, College Town Partners, was of public interest because NIU and City of DeKalb were named as partners in documents related to its purpose and operations.
— Haji-Sheikh asked NIU and City of DeKalb for documents related to College Town Partners under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). DeKalb denied her some of the information under an exemption to FOIA for preliminary drafts/proposals.
— Haji-Sheikh requested that the Attorney General’s Office of Public Access review DeKalb’s denial of information to ensure the city has used the FOIA exemption properly. The AG accepted this Request for Review.
— City of DeKalb responded to the AG’s request to provide the legal basis for using the FOIA exemption(s) but in an unusual move the city asked for — and received — blanket confidentiality of its response.
— Haji-Sheikh is allowed under the review process to respond to the city’s response and she did so even though she hasn’t been allowed to read it.
Michael Haji-Sheikh has provided Misty’s response to the AG via Twitter. Continue reading Latest on the College Town Partners FOIA Matter
The Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) has agreed to examine a City of DeKalb denial of information to a representative of a neighborhood group.
Here’s the usual drill. Upon the PAC accepting a Request for Review it invites the public body to respond with the legal basis for denial. The response is shared with requester, who gets a chance to respond to the response. PAC eventually delivers an opinion about whether the denial was legal under FOIA.
What’s unusual here is that the city is requesting that its response be kept wholly confidential. That’s right; DeKalb doesn’t want the requester to see any part of it. Continue reading AG is Reviewing DeKalb’s Denial of Information to Neighborhood Rep
I’ve read the College Town Partners documents that were leaked to the Preserve Our Neighborhoods (PON) group. (Want copies? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The agreements, which were never signed, lay out a corporate partnership between City of DeKalb, NIU, a local developer and two banks.
They strike me as kind of nuts, actually, being fraught with conflicts of interest that government bodies could never ignore. Whoever developed them — at this point I’m envisioning somebody’s partially demented but clout-heavy uncle who must be humored — possesses no grasp of the “public” part of public projects.
For example, the agreements place the DeKalb city manager in the position of manager of a self-interested company operating in the same community. They also attempt to make rules for the participation of the government bodies (e.g.: confidentiality, non-compete clause, predetermined developer) but that’s the flip of what’s supposed to happen.
The plans as written didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in sunlight. Still, somebody thought enough of them to stuff 60 pages into an envelope to mail to the PON folks. Why? I think it must be a warning that an awful lot of planning has been going on behind closed doors, and that some of it may not represent the public interest.
Speaking of which, let’s look at the recent naughtiness of your mayor that ties in here. Continue reading College Town Partners Agreements are Kind of Cray, but Still Important
NIU president Baker and the mayor each spoke to the group, as did NIU vice-president Bill Nicklas and an architect who explained the process involved in the development of the Bold Futures Thesis.
In a nutshell, NIU wants to transform the thesis into a real plan for better use of the physical campus in nurturing a sense of place. It is one of several initiatives they hope will improve enrollment and retention of the hip, urban Millennial Generation.
When audience members expressed concern that the university is also pushing development plans for nearby historic neighborhoods without their input, the NIU representatives seemed genuinely surprised that they’d reached this conclusion. The NIU thesis isn’t a plan yet, they said; and besides, the focus is on the campus center.
Funny. I’d reached the same conclusion that the audience did when I attended the March 15 City of DeKalb strategic planning meeting. There, VP Nicklas shared his top budget priorities that involved the city and my notes show one of them is “Locust Street enhancements.”
So, I think maybe the NIU folks are back-pedaling a little.
However, I also believe the city has hitched its caboose to the NIU train with a little sleight-of-hand. Continue reading Observations: Yesterday’s Town Hall Meeting with NIU