In 2005 a small group of neighbors fought a certain developer for a number of reasons. Addressing the DeKalb City Council one evening, the developer claimed that he had made no attempt to obtain tax abatements or other financial breaks for his project. One of the neighbors rose to challenge the statement because she knew the developer had requested a waiver of fees from the Sanitary District, and she knew it because the Sanitary District posts its meeting minutes online. What’s more, the neighbor probably accessed the minutes on the weekend or maybe midnight because she has a day job.

This is the face of citizen participation today. If we’re to get involved in government beyond voting–can anyone argue the need?–we require either a whole lot more leisure time or increased ease of access. The case of the smart-growth advocates vs. warehouse mania represents hundreds of hours of research that simply would not have been possible without extreme surfing of the wild, unfettered Internet upon the slick board that is cable modem. What’s more, we’ve placed much of the work here at CityBarbs, which saves duplication of effort and has helped the residents of at least one other city that found itself in a similar situation.

It could be that on Monday, the City of DeKalb will demonstrate its willingness to join us in the pool.

First, a recap beginning with the notorious Third Ward campaign last spring. Some of the fallout landed on City Clerk Donna Johnson for her role enabling production of a smear mailer, fallout that was exacerbated when citizens who spoke out against these campaign tactics at city council meetings felt that their comments had been sanitized in the meeting minutes. Two citizens visited Donna Johnson at her office in the latter half of July. It became apparent during the meeting that while only an election could result in a change in meeting minute contents, there was some hope now for improving electronic access to them. This was music to the ears of long-time city watchers who have found the process of tracking and tracing developments in projects and policy as unnecessarily burdensome in this technological age.

A group of these veterans, along with some of the newly-angered, sent a letter to the City Manager last week. The result, taken from the City Manager agenda memo for the August 13 Committee of the Whole Meeting, was Item 4:

CONSIDERATION OF INCREASED ACCESS TO PUBLIC RECORDS.
The City has received requests from a group of citizens to expand access to City Council meetings and minutes. Staff has already been working on a number of these suggestions, as part of the strategic goals identified by City Council, which was to “promote city services through enhanced use of cable outlet and City web site.” This memorandum provides an update on these projects, which correlates closely with the requests from the citizen’s group.

It sure does, but currently one has to request copies of such memos. FWIW they were very quick in responding to that request:

DATE: August 8, 2007

TO: Mayor

City Council

FROM: Mark Biernacki, City Manager

Rudy Espiritu, Assistant City Manager

SUBJECT: City Website & Communication Enhancements

STRATEGIC GOAL: Continue to improve and build on the City’s reputation as a leading community in the region:

Promote city services through enhanced use of cable outlet and City web site

I. Summary:

The City has received requests from a group of citizens to expand access to City Council meetings and minutes. Staff has already been working on a number of these suggestions, as part of the strategic goals identified by City Council, which was to “promote city services through enhanced use of cable outlet and City web site.” This memorandum provides an update on these projects, which correlates closely with the requests from the citizen’s group.

II. Background:

Currently, DVDs of any City Council meeting are available for purchase at City Hall for $5.00. This price helps defray the cost of the materials to produce the disk. Additionally, we will also begin providing a DVD to the DeKalb Public Library for public checkout.

For the last couple of months, the Information & Technology Division has been working on a joint project with Kishwaukee Collage to provide webcasts of City Council meetings. This would allow online users to watch a previous Council meeting at anytime. With Kish College allowing the City to use their video server, the City is able to save approximately $5,000. The project is currently in the testing phase and once the fiber connection to Kish is complete in 4 – 6 months, we expect to have the webcasts up and running on the City’s website.

Beginning the first City Council meeting in January 2008, staff expects to have the full agenda packet available on the City’s website. Currently, the website provides only the agenda, the City Manager’s agenda memo, and approved minutes from previous Council meetings over the past year. The full agenda packet will now include the pre-approved minutes from the previous Council meeting and all the back-up materials that supplement each agenda item. I & T staff is also looking into offering search engine capabilities on the website as well. This would enable users to find certain items on the website by using a keyword search.

Lastly, staff also expects to have both e-payments through the website and offer direct debit for water billing customers by January 1, 2008. We are working with our bank and accounting software vendor to get this accomplished. Both items will be in the testing phase shortly. E-payments will allow for online bill payments for water bills and various fees. Direct debit brings automatic payments through a customer’s checking account.

III. Community Groups/Interested Parties Contacted:

None.

IV. Legal Impact:

None.

V. Financial Impact:

On-line payments and direct debit will bring more compliance in bill payments to the City. By working jointly with Kishwaukee Collage, the City would save approximately $5,000 in video server costs.

VI. Alternatives:

None.

VII. Recommendation :

Direct staff to continue these website and communication enhancements.

Respectfully submitted for City Council consideration…

Considering that we spoke with Donna Johnson specifically on the issue of availability of DVDs at City Hall, one has to wonder whether she didn’t mention it in order to make us look silly, or whether she really doesn’t know about them.

But I really don’t want to get snarky here. The memo addresses in some way every issue brought up in the letter except for the inclusion of Plan Commission minutes; and the addition of the full agenda packet (which in future will include memos such as the above) is a fantastic bonus. Our areas of concern became a meeting agenda item either because the City Manager thought it was a good idea or because at least three aldermen did–or both–and the response has been as prompt as can be. The City earns points with these actions.

Points, along with profound hope/relief that our anger and concern may yet translate into beneficial results.

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Wogen Watch will save us at CityBarbs some duplication of effort by posting the citizens’ letter momentarily…OK, permalink here.