Mayor Jerry Smith has promised us another City of DeKalb Committee of the Whole meeting for hashing out problems with the city’s new Freedom of Information Act policies and procedures that changed without notice in May. While we’re waiting for that opportunity, I’m going to highlight the issues via a partial transcript of Mac McIntyre’s public statement during the June 12 meeting that was dedicated to this topic, and stud it with my two cents here and there. Read the rest of this entry

Feels like a SLAPP to me

DeKalb’s police chief is suing a McHenry County resident for calling him names in emails addressed to other DeKalb city officials.

[DeKalb Police Chief] Gene Lowery filed suit in DeKalb County Court in January 2016, seeking damages from Thomas G. Salvi, for libel. Salvi, a doctor of internal medicine and a former Republican candidate for state representative who lives in Crystal Lake, sent emails in 2015 to then-Mayor John Rey and City Manager Anne Marie Gaura, in which he called Lowery “evil” and “a thug,” and urged them to fire him.

Chief Lowery worked in McHenry County before he came to DeKalb, and that’s where he and Dr. Salvi apparently locked horns.

This actually happened to me once. A person wrote to my supervisor to make outlandish accusations against me. The boss and I had a brief chat, and I returned to work. End of story.

Chief Lowery didn’t even have to have the chat.

This type of thin-skinned reaction is not at all what I like to see in a public official. You see, there’s something called SLAPP lawsuits. SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.” SLAPPs are attempts by public bodies — and possibly now by a singular public official — to repress criticism.

Illinois has an “anti-SLAPP” law called the Citizen Participation Act, which (in part) says this:

The threat of SLAPPs significantly chills and diminishes citizen participation in government, voluntary public service, and the exercise of these important constitutional rights. This abuse of the judicial process can and has been used as a means of intimidating, harassing, or punishing citizens and organizations for involving themselves in public affairs.

It is in the public interest and it is the purpose of this Act to strike a balance between the rights of persons to file lawsuits for injury and the constitutional rights of persons to petition, speak freely, associate freely, and otherwise participate in government; to protect and encourage public participation in government to the maximum extent permitted by law; to establish an efficient process for identification and adjudication of SLAPPs; and to provide for attorney’s fees and costs to prevailing movants.

According to the Office of the Circuit Clerk, the next court date is July 5, 2017, beginning 9am in the DeKalb County Courthouse. That’s the date we’ll hopefully find out what sort of injury Dr. Salvi has perpetrated upon Chief Lowery.

Until then, at least, it feels like a SLAPP to me.

…and I’m not altogether sure all of them were followed.

Chapter 110 of the Illinois Compiled Statutes (ILCS) is the Chapter that governs higher education. You can see how it is organized here, that it has general provisions and then provisions specific to the Board of Higher Education, each public university, community colleges, and student assistance.

110 ILCS 685 applies to Northern Illinois University, and most of NIU Law is contained in Article 30, as in 110 ILCS 685/30.

The section that applies to severance is Section 30-195, all of which comes from Public Act 99-0694, which passed the Illinois General Assembly July 29, 2016, and became effective January 1, 2017. In other words, this is very likely the Act that was passed in response to extreme misbehavior at College of DuPage. Read the rest of this entry

The council members held it at the DeKalb Township building, and about 20 people from the 4th, 5th, and 6th wards attended.

The last time I can remember going to a meeting in my ward was 2005, so this was a pretty big deal to me.

They didn’t disappoint.

I’ve posted it at the City Barbs Facebook Group as well, and I expect most comments, if any, will end up there.

The departure of NIU President Doug Baker is not simply a response to an OEIG report of mismanagement. In my opinion, it’s also the product of citizens’ efforts that began in May 2014 when someone anonymously mailed the College Town Partners agreement to a founder of a group of concerned DeKalb residents called Preserve Our Neighborhoods.

For three years, participants have submitted complaints to the state, and Freedom of Information Act requests to local public bodies. They’ve talked to neighbors, synthesized thousands of payment records and emails, attended and spoken at town halls and Board of Trustees meetings, worked to get articles published, wrote letters, and more.

Of course the OEIG report is indispensible. It shows the world Baker’s so-called “ethically inspired leadership” for the cynical b.s. that it always has been, ensures the dirt doesn’t get shoved under the rug, possibly opens the door to criminal investigations, and gives hope for better leadership at NIU.

But never underestimate the power of citizen-driven drip, drip, drip. I salute you, who played a part in this saga, and hope you enjoy the vindication.

“If half of life is showing up, the other half is endurance.” ~yinn

I’ve now viewed DeKalb city council’s Committee of the Whole meeting held last night. The meeting centered around the new online Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Center, and whether city staff members’ changes to FOIA policies and procedures are legal and fair.

Nothing was resolved, so they will take up the topic again in a future meeting. City staff are on the hard-sell path, so they will continue to try to grind down the council until they “win” whatever game they are playing, or until council tells them to knock it off.

Over the next couple weeks, I sincerely hope that council members will talk to the resident requesters whom the FOIA officer essentially called liars last night, and try to ascertain the truth about their experiences. Requesters say staff called them up and told them FOIA requests would no longer be accepted via email. Staff says that never happened. Seems like this could use some follow up.

I hope that Ald. Noreiko, who asked whether the launch of the FOIA Center was publicized and was told by staff that it was announced on social media, will actually visit the social media sites and see for herself whether this is so (and if it’s not, someone needs to be called out. Do we really need to say this?)

And when we meet again, I hope we can get to the crux of the matter: Why exactly is it suddenly unreasonable for people to ask for an email response to a FOIA request?

My answer: It’s not unreasonable. The FOIA officer would just send an email containing the same PDF file as he has uploaded to the website. It doesn’t take much more time, it doesn’t use any more paper, it ensures the requester can access the response, and it’s just good customer service with the potential for building good will.

Indeed, city business routinely involves email, so the refusal to send FOIA responses that way is actually kind of bizarre.

Several of DeKalb’s city council members balked at making financial or other commitments to the STEAM center project until they have in hand a thorough analysis of its most important source of funding, the soon-to-be-retired Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts.

Even the most worthy projects are subject to resource limitations, so a peek into the municipal wallet and thoughtful prioritization make good sense, and are probably the most important reasons to apply the brakes.

But there are other reasons, too. Here are three of them.

1. It’s not our job. It’s not automatically the duty of the city to pick up the slack on an NIU project, especially one that NIU itself has decided it can’t spare a dime for. Public safety and infrastructure are supposed to be the names of our games, but now the consultant and administrators are broaching consideration of involvement in site selection, governance, even operations. Boundaries, people.

2. The push is premature. This is a top-down pet project headed by city administrators who have clearly done most of the work, and last week’s special meeting was clearly about hard-selling our new electeds into supporting it. But there is no sign of any corresponding surge in public support. No organization has stepped up to pledge financial support for its construction and operation. It’s an entirely backwards process, which bodes ill for fundraising efforts. If STEAM gets approved at this point, we will all get stuck with the bill.

3. The TIF goal is unclear. As proposed, the project tells us little about ROI, which in a TIF district means raising EAV in the district. In fact, at least initially it would do the opposite, by taking another large property off the tax rolls.

I want to note that counil members David Jacobson and Michael Verbic have asked for financial analyses before (Verbic as a Financial Advisory Committee member), and they’ve been completely ignored in the past. The unified insistence on the TIF analysis is a welcome move, and I hope it means this council aims to reclaim its full authority in stewardship. Fingers crossed.

Besides DeKalb’s difficulties in following the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (and basic principles of customer service in the 21st Century) there’s another serious problem: failure of its online “FOIA Center” to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rules.

Mac McIntyre of DeKalb County Online, who has also written about the misuse of the new FOIA Center, discovered the non-compliance issues on those pages of the city’s website as well. They are similar to previous findings.

In a nutshell, if you have a visual impairment and try to navigate FOIA Center webpages, you’re pretty much screwed.

But at least the city’s new IT director has acknowledged the problem. Last time we broached the subject, the tactic was to deny, deny, deny. Maybe this time it’ll get fixed.

Related: City Barbs: Website accessibility and the fine print

I told you a couple months ago that DeKalb’s problems are remedial, and I really mean it. They do not have the slightest idea how to deliver a good customer experience to the public.

Their latest trick is the new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) “system.” The press release is here.

The web-based FOIA software system allows users to register for an account, submit FOIA requests, and track progress of FOIA requests from submittal to completion. The system also allows users to browse all FOIA requests previously submitted to the City, along with the published responses and all responsive records.

It actually sounds like a good option, assuming the system works and that a person is both willing and able to create and maintain an account. The trouble is, in real life the city is not treating it as an option, but rather trying to force requesters to use it. They have eliminated information about alternatives from the website. Also, I have talked to two people so far whom city staff have called up and tried to bully into using the “system,” rather than do business their preferred way, which is email.

Bad form, DeKalb. Also wrong strictly from the FOIA standpoint. Read the rest of this entry

In my last post, I explored how Tax Increment Financing (TIF) dollars for FY2016 were budgeted versus actual spending. This time I hope to explain the discrepancies, at least partially.

TIF districts have their own budgets in their own funds that are separate from the city’s general operating fund called the General Fund. DeKalb currently has two active TIF districts/funds, TIF 1 (AKA Central Area TIF) and TIF 2.

To summarize the situation: For FY2016, $1 million was budgeted for street construction/reconstruction in TIF 1. However, in the budget narrative for the half-year budget called FY2016.5, staff reported that they “[f]unded street improvements in the amount of $600,000” in FY2016, and in the annual TIF report to the state for that fiscal year, it was revealed that less than $75,000 was actually spent for street improvements out of that fund. Read the rest of this entry