***Update 3/21/2018: Home rule was rejected by nearly 54% of Rockford voters.***
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Far be it from me to tell Rockford residents what to do, but may I point out that ordinances can be repealed.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.”
The plaintiff in a federal free-speech case with implications for local government meetings finally has a court date: October 21. From the Rock River Times:
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Rockford resident and former Winnebago County Board chairman candidate Michael Castronovo, alleges multiple violations of his free-speech rights at Winnebago County Board meetings and at Public Works committee meetings.
Some of these alleged violations may be related to the December 2008 change made to county ordinance 2-65 where “zoning items, personnel matters, or any pending or threatened litigation involving the County” became restricted topics for citizens at county board meetings.
Though it hasn’t yet gone to trial, the case has survived several pre-trial hearings. During one of the hearings, the presiding judge confirmed that all government meetings — even committee meetings — must include public comment sessions per the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
The lawsuit itself, however, alleges Constitutional violations of the First Amendment; specifically, prohibitions on the content of public comment.
The two sides in a settlement conference on a federal lawsuit regarding public input at public meetings were deemed “too far apart” to come to terms, so it is expected a trial date will be set at a conference hearing June 21.
Two allegations from Count II of the suit, having to do with possible Freedom of Speech violations made by Winnebago County and some county officials, have survived a Motion of Summary Judgment. They are as follows (PDF):
Winnebago County’s motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, Count II remains as to the allegations that defendants violated Castronovo’s free speech rights by refusing to permit him to speak at the public works committee meetings and to the allegations that the Board Chairman instructed Castronovo that he could not speak before the Board as a whole if he were to name names in his speech.
If the Court finds that the chair did instruct Mike “C” Castronovo not to name names, it would constitute a content restriction, which is a First Amendment no-no. As for the allegation that the county did not permit his input at all during some meetings, the judge noted that the public works committee meetings are already covered by the state’s Open Meetings Act and as such must permit public comment during their meetings except under the exemptions for closed sessions. Continue reading Trial to be Set for Free Speech Lawsuit with Implications for Local Government Meetings
**Update: You may have noticed we were offline most of the day yesterday, due to the host’s making a change in server hardware. The last step, restoration of data via a backup, left a draft version of this post that I’ve tinkered with and republished.
Winnebago County has opened up its board committee meetings to public comment, according to an RRStar.com article.
There’s a federal lawsuit involved and the judge in the case has confirmed the requirement for public comment, though the county claims it has always planned to comply with the new provision of the Open Meetings Act anyhow. The Open Meetings Act is a state law.
The county began to allow public comment at committee meetings after the newly elected board organized on Dec. 3. The move was needed to comply with a 2011 change to the Open Meetings Act.
Mike “C” Castronovo filed the lawsuit Feb. 23, 2011 in part because he was denied the ability to speak at a May 2009 Public Works Committee meeting.
Castronovo’s lawsuit stems from a time before the change to the Open Meetings Act, said Deputy State’s Attorney Dave Kurlinkus. The decision to open meetings for public comment was not a response to Castronovo’s lawsuit, “but it certainly was called to our attention through it,” Kurlinkus said.
Maybe it wasn’t a response to the lawsuit, and maybe it was. But hearing from a federal judge on the matter must be somewhat reinforcing, yes? Continue reading Listen Up, DeKalb. Public Meetings Must Allow Public Comment
It’s registration without tons of new staff or inspection ordinances of dubious constitutionality.
Right now, the only thing between the city and a new landlord registry is the right software, said Paul Arena, president of the Rockford Apartment Association.
The property managers want the database to link to the city’s police and code enforcement reporting tools so they can receive an e-mail when something happens at one of their properties.
Arena said he’s confident that it can be done through a program that won’t put additional demands on city staff.
Let’s compare in our signature DeKalb-centric way.
The City of DeKalb put together what observers can now conclude was supposed to be a puppet task force to promote its rental inspection ambitions. The task force ended up not being a puppet, thereby forcing the administration to a) try an end run around its work by contracting with rental inspection “experts,” b) introduce (and re-introduce) and advocate its own ordinances at council though they ran counter to task force recommendations, and c) ensure victory by waiting until a key council member went on vacation to hold the final vote.
The City of Rockford negotiated directly — and, it appears, sometimes fiercely — with its landlords, and will soon bring to its council an ordinance that has the support of both parties.
Which city would you rather deal with?
Related: Licensing & Inspection Program Could Help Turn a TIF Blueprint into Reality
***Update 1:30 p.m.: Their lips say no, but the timing feels like there’s some piling on.***
**Update 9:45 a.m.: Here’s the latest put up by RRStar. I do NOT agree that WCFPD has a credibility problem (stated at the end of the article). Instead, I’d argue that any credibility problem is Randy Olson’s alone at this point and that WCFPD made all the right moves to set right a trust-busting situation that Olson created.**
To summarize: Former Winnebago Forest Preserve District president Randy Olson created and staffed a new public safety job even though the majority of the commission disapproved of his decisions.
Here is what the other commissioners did about it:
It took some time — and for Olson to actually make the hire — for the board to pick up the additional vote it needed to demote him. The fifth commissioner professed herself a good friend of his but busted him anyway. (Olson still serves, just not as president. It will be interesting to see what the voters say if he runs again.)
Well done, #wcfpd!
*Update 10:45 p.m.: Olson is out as district president! The story is here. But that’s not all! Find bonus Chuck Sweeney here with free shipping!*
The Rockford Register Star used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain e-mails to and from Winnebago Forest Preserve district president Randy Olson that trace the process of creating a job for a person he evidently likes very much.
Randy Olson plotted for months to give Roscoe cop Theresa Rawaillot a well-paid forest preserve police job, a trail of emails shows.
And when his plans hit roadblocks along the way, he ultimately decided to change the way forest preserves are policed.
The job creation efforts involved bulldozing the district’s executive director as well as ignoring the majority of its board of commissioners.
It may even have violated the Open Meetings Act, and thanks to a complaint made by an concerned citizen, the Attorney General is planning to investigate the allegation.
President Olson remains unrepentant.
Olson has said that commissioners have focused too much on the process to bring Rawaillot on board, which distracts from the goal: to save the district money and improve police presence in the preserves.
At least four of the commissioners do not agree that the ends justify the means, and I’ll bet they hate getting stuck with a police officer who thinks this is OK, too.
Rockford Register Star asked the question: When it comes to municipal electrical aggregation, what’s in it for the city?
City brokers deal with other municipalities, lands nearly $20 million in savings for area customers, hands over thousands of accounts and gets nothing in return?
Rockford’s Central Services Manager Carrie Eklund says that’s exactly what the city did when it decided to waive an administrative fee, a small amount that would be added onto everyone’s bill and funneled back to the city.
The state’s new electrical aggregation law allows cities to do it, Eklund said, and some have. But not Rockford.
“We are getting no compensation from this whatsoever,” she said. “The option was there, and we chose not to use it. We wanted to pass along all of the savings to our residents and small businesses.”
“Fee?” We need to get our terms straight. Continue reading Rockford Rejects Collection of Fee for Electrical Aggregation
In a continuation of this story, Winnebago Forest Preserve District president Randy Olson has created and staffed a public safety job without the approval — and indeed in defiance of — a majority of the board.
And, it appears the move might even be legal:
Olson’s authorization of the hire is a rare move in the forest preserve district, but the Downstate Forest Preserve District Act appears to give him the power to do so: “The president of (the forest preserve board) shall have power to appoint such employees as may be necessary.”
That appears to conflict with the Winnebago County Forest Preserve’s bylaws, which says the president can make appointments “subject to confirmation by the board.” The board’s attorney has advised commissioners that state statutes trump local rules, Kalousek said.
Olson’s plan is an alternative to contracting with the Winnebago County Sheriff’s police for protection in the preserves. The problems, according to a memo written by four members of the board, are that Olson failed to make a case for his actions to the rest of the board, and that he improperly used a closed session meeting to try to get other board members to go along them.
The board could remove Olson as president, but would need to pick up a fifth vote to do so.
Four Winnebago Forest Preserve Board commissioners — a majority — are accusing the board president of misusing a closed session meeting in an attempt to create a new position. Chuck Sweeney examines the letter the commissioners sent to board president Randy Olson:
First, it says, “We believe the Board was placed in jeopardy by using ‘closed session’ to discuss the public safety coordinator; a matter other than that for which the meeting was closed. State law is very well defined on this; and if it were shared with staff and public it would most certainly be viewed as an abuse of closed session. It is in the best interest of the Board, as well as the public, to follow state law regarding closed sessions.”
See? Some boards do understand the Open Meetings Act and are willing to fight for it. Continue reading Winnebago Forest Preserve Board Smacks Down Perceived Abuses by Its President