Housing authority’s dealings with Morning Star Media

A month ago Ryan Weckerly, president of Morning Star Media, Ltd., agreed to plead guilty in federal court to charges related to a $3 million-plus kickback scheme.

Several units of local government have paid Morning Star over the past decade. City of Sycamore gave the company TIF money to help it settle in new digs downtown. City of DeKalb coughed up more than $30,000 as part of a rebranding scheme that included creation of the city’s current logo. Some public bodies use(d) them for website design. Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb (HACD) sought Morning Star’s services to help present a different way of looking at the organization and the people it serves.

Who is Morningstar?

What is locally known as MorningStar or Morningstar is a sort of collective of at least three corporations and assumed names of two of them. The common denominator is Ryan Weckerly as the president or manager of each. This includes Morning Star Media Group, Ltd.; Morningstar Interactive, Inc. aka Invironments Magazine; and Blank Slate Media, LLC aka Blank Slate Ads. Blank Slate Media/Ads has been reported as the company Weckerly used in the kickback scheme, is the newest of the three corporations and was organized in 2015.

In this post, we’ll use the more customary presentation “Morningstar” to denote Weckerly’s enterprises generally.

Open Meetings and Freedom of Information

HACD has particularly attracted the attention of city watchers for its relationship with Morningstar within a larger context of problems unearthed with Open Meetings Act violations and HACD’s chronic inability to produce complete vendor contracts and payment records when requested under Freedom of Information Act.

I asked HACD for records of payments to Morningstar and the response didn’t make a lick of sense initially. HACD put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) in late 2016 and meeting minutes of January 2017 included the announcement of the award to Morningstar, yet payments to Morningstar didn’t start until 2018. Turns out the contract resulting from Request for Proposal (RFP) 16-040 involved the services of three Weckerly companies that were invoiced and paid separately: Morning Star Media for website and social media, Invironments Magazine for stories and ads in the magazine of that name, and Blank Slate Ads for advertising on billboards and bus shelters.

Invoices arrived sporadically and sometimes months late. The HACD executive director commented in an email that Morningstar had a “horrible accounting and billing system.” Despite this, the payment records indicate HACD stuck with Morningstar until well into 2019.

Continue reading Housing authority’s dealings with Morning Star Media

How the DeKalb Housing Authority violates the Open Meetings Act

The DeKalb County Housing Authority has not often pinged my radar until now. A few years ago a couple people shared with me their being told by staff that federal rules prohibited bringing their cats with them into public housing unless the animals were declawed; my advice since then is to ask for citation of chapter and verse when it comes to staff “interpreting” house rules.

Much more recently the housing authority’s suffering over inadequate parking at headquarters came to the fore because City of DeKalb decided to fix it by turning a section of North Sixth Street into one-way traffic to squeeze out a few more spaces.

What really makes it difficult to spot the general public interest in the city’s granting of this assistance is the lack of public process to establish the need in the first place, and to explain why the city jumped into a county problem with city resources. I asked the authority to provide me with records of its board’s discussions of the parking issues. There aren’t any. This appears to be 100% the product of back-room conversations until the matter popped up on the council agenda as a possible ordinance. An ordinance has passed, so now we can only guess at better solutions public discussion might have generated.

Continue reading How the DeKalb Housing Authority violates the Open Meetings Act

DeKalb city council voted to allow me to participate remotely in order to exclude you

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:

city-clerk-remote-participation-email

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.

Let’s get that on the agenda for July 27.

Eliminating Zoom option for city meetings is a terribly backwards thing to do

The Daily Chronicle reports that City of DeKalb is eliminating the remote public participation option for meetings because Illinois is entering Phase 4 of its reopening.

First victim is Human Relations Commission, which during its last meeting enjoyed remote participation via the Zoom application by nearly 90 people. Since the meeting tonight also will not be televised, your only option for real-time participation is to show up in person for an historic discussion of recommendations for better police-community relations.

This is a completely backwards move. Reasons:

— Safety. I have not watched one city meeting in which board members and city staff have successfully practiced COVID-19 precautions. At times I’ve seen no masks, masks pulled down under noses and chins, and failures of social distancing — even people shaking hands. During the last TIF Joint Review Board meeting, members of the public who attended in person had to pass within a couple feet of board members to make their comments.

Another safety issue right now is the weather. Some people have medical issues that prevent them from venturing outdoors in the extreme heat. Pulling Zoom at this point seems ableist.

— Accommodation. The Open Meetings Act states that public meetings must be held at times and in places convenient to the public. Remote public participation is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Act, and turnout when Zoom is used demonstrates there is demand for this option.

— Progress. There is no good reason not to make remote public participation part of the repertoire for conducting meetings in a modern city.

Staff recently made a serious error on the wrong side of the Open Meetings Act by offering a remote participation option for members of the TIF Joint Review Board while barring the general public from the same option; the State’s Attorney’s Office had to step in to correct it. Better decisions could be made if council would stop ceding its authority in these matters to staff, who do not have the same motivation to take the side of the public. Conducting meetings is policy, and policy rightfully belongs with our elected representatives.

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

Here’s the difference in agenda rules between regular and special public meetings

During a recent Annie Glidden North task force subcommittee meeting, I alleged Open Meetings Act (OMA) violations. I want to explain why.

What I objected to was the subcommittee’s addition of discussion items to the agenda of a special meeting. During regular meetings, a public body can talk about anything it wants, but that same body must stick to the published agenda when it has a special meeting.

It’s easier to understand if you unhook “notice” from “agenda.” Maybe you’ve heard of the rule of publishing meeting notices and agendas 48 hours in advance? The “notice” part actually differs between regular and special meetings. While you might also see meeting specifics on a regular agenda (makes sense) the notice that counts under OMA is the schedule published at the beginning of the fiscal or calendar year; the 48-hour notice applies to the agenda only. A special meeting, on the other hand, requires that the body publish 48 hours in advance the notice of the meeting and the agenda together.

Adding discussion items to a regular agenda is allowed due to the abundance of notice for regular meetings. At least hypothetically, anyone interested has enough time to arrange to attend any or all regular meetings.

The agenda rule for special meetings is tighter — no additions allowed — due to the short notice.

So back to the subcommittee meetings. These are special meetings so far, but last week at least one committee added items to its agenda. Whoever is the boss of these committees (the mayor, I hope) could decide to give them flexibility of agenda by setting up a regular meeting schedule, but until then they must stick to their agendas.

Also, could somebody please train the city staff. There were three staff members attending the meeting I observed, and none of them had a clue. Continue reading Here’s the difference in agenda rules between regular and special public meetings

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.

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

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