DeKalb Township reports it’s inundated with FOIA requests

I’ve finished another section of video from last week’s regular meeting of DeKalb Township. This time, I watched the board moan its way through the latest report of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The township supervisor says they’re spending so much time responding to requests, there’s a possibility the township may have to hire another person to help handle them.

The General Assembly recognizes that this Act imposes fiscal obligations on public bodies to provide adequate staff and equipment to comply with its requirements. The General Assembly declares that providing records in compliance with the requirements of this Act is a primary duty of public bodies to the people of this State, and this Act should be construed to this end, fiscal obligations notwithstanding.

Illinois Freedom of Information Act, Section 1

If DeKalb Township does have to come up with the money to hire another person, the suffering is entirely self-inflicted. The township didn’t have to remove documents from its website that had previously been accessible, and they didn’t have to lie about the reason for pulling them. It’s unprofessional conduct that has drawn new scrutiny.

Clip of the FOIA report (about 5-1/2 minutes) is here.

Lastly, let me correct misinformation that’s in the clip. The FOIA officer certainly can direct a requester to the website if the information sought is actually there.

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Documents continue to suggest housing authority’s pattern of partiality toward its IT vendor

In June, the DeKalb Park District approved a contract with Sundog IT, the company owned by DeKalb’s mayor, Cohen Barnes. We opposed the deal for reasons of conflicts of interests, but the district did run a request for proposal (RFP) bidding process and the buck did stop with the park district board, as one would expect.

Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb, Illinois (HACD) has a similar arrangement with Sundog IT for services. However, there is no evidence among documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that an RFP process was followed or that the housing authority board voted on the deal.

Question: Why did the park district run an RFP selection process for IT services but HACD did not?

Answer: HACD probably should have done an RFP.

Continue reading Documents continue to suggest housing authority’s pattern of partiality toward its IT vendor

Nicklas Consulting, LLC

Bill Nicklas, city manager of DeKalb, owns Nicklas Consulting, LLC. I did not know this until I read a complaint in which he is named a defendant. At the time of the discovery, I was the city clerk so I hesitated to address it publicly, especially when thinking of him as an abuser guarantees bias on my part. But a transparently biased view is better than not discussing these ethical issues at all, and it’s important we chip away at the impunity afforded some of our local leaders if we want to build a better local government.

So let me count the ways Nicklas Consulting is ethically problematic.

  1. The employment contract with DeKalb doesn’t allow side gigs. The contract states in three places that Mr. Nicklas is to work exclusively for City of DeKalb, with termination for cause an option if he engages in competing or other outside employment “without the express prior written consent of the Employer.” Since the employer is the city council, the approval would be hashed out in an open meeting, but this conversation has never happened.
  2. City of DeKalb policy reinforces the contract language. A rule from the employees’ handbook states city employees must obtain approval from their superiors to commence outside employment and to seek reapproval annually. Mr. Nicklas signed a form saying he had no outside employment, and then approved it himself. Maybe he suspended consulting activities for the city manager’s job, but the failure to discuss continued ownership prevented an evaluation of the appropriateness and potential consequences of maintaining the active status of the corporation. This is the council’s responsibility and purview, not Nicklas’.
  3. ICMA takes ethics seriously. The premier professional organization for managers in government, the International City/County Management Association, not only has crafted a strict code of conduct and ethics but also a structure for providing training, advice, and enforcement that can include public censure of members who violate the code. DeKalb city management do not pay dues to ICMA, but they are members of the state-level version of the organization, ILCMA, whose membership has adopted the ICMA ethics code. ICMA looks at outside employment the same way Nicklas’ contract and DeKalb’s personnel policies do: that outside work should be employer-approved in advance. The code furthermore states that conflicts of interest should be avoided, as well as even the appearance of conflicts of interest.
  4. The existence of Nicklas Consulting helps to create the appearance of a conflict of interest and partiality. According to the aforementioned complaint (that I hope you’ll read if you haven’t already) a developer who’s been a client for Nicklas’ services became a major investor in the TIF redevelopment project that replaced another TIF redevelopment project called 145 Fisk after Bill Nicklas convinced the city council to revoke its preliminary approval of Fisk. If Mr. Nicklas had dissolved his corporation upon accepting the manager’s position, he’d have provided less fodder for the plaintiff.
Continue reading Nicklas Consulting, LLC

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.

Charging the Water Fund for salaries in other departments is a masterpiece of nontransparency

*Note: “Departments” as used in this article should be read as shorthand for “departments, divisions, and offices.”*

Take a look at this budget from DeKalb’s Finance Division:

FY2020-Finance-adopted-budget

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, it’s not. It does not show all the wages the Finance employees get paid. This is a budget that accounts only for the wages coming from the General Fund (the city’s chief operating fund). Finance staff also get paid portions of their wages from the Water Fund.

Total full- and part-time wages this year for Finance people are projected to come to $157,000 more than this Finance budget shows. Likewise, the Water Fund provides part of the compensation for the city manager’s office, Building & Code, HR, IT — even the city council.

Continue reading Charging the Water Fund for salaries in other departments is a masterpiece of nontransparency

New Illinois Law for Local Gov Audits Is Doing the Trick

Here’s a new state law we can all get behind: Public Act 098-0738, which requires certain disclosures pertaining to city and county audits.

Introduced by Rep. Tom Demmer, the law went into effect this month. Here’s another version with the deets.

Of particular interest to me is the now-required sharing of the auditors’ letters to management that accompany each audit. It was just a couple years ago that a tipster told me there was such a thing. Once aware of their existence, I began making Freedom of Information Act requests for these letters, and boy have they ever been illuminating. Just look at the posts I’ve done:

City of DeKalb Had ‘Excess Expenditures’ of $3.1 Million in FY2013

DeKalb’s Police Department Overspent by $700,000 last fiscal year

The latest management letter, for FY2015, was published with the annual financial report in the December 14 council meeting agenda. Start on p. 19 of the PDF. Notice the addition of the management response to each item of concern, too.

What a difference good transparency laws can make. Hats off to Rep. Demmer.

Hats off to anonymous tipsters, too.

Documents: College Town Partners NFP

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

DeKalb Taxpayers: Ready to Pony Up for a New Convention Center?

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.

How convenient.

You can look at some of the documents, obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, at the City Barbs Blog Facebook Group.

Latest on the College Town Partners FOIA Matter

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

AG is Reviewing DeKalb’s Denial of Information to Neighborhood Rep

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