Archive for the ‘ City Watch ’ Category

Mayor Rey opened the city’s strategic planning meeting last evening just after 5pm, only to be challenged from the audience by county board member and Preserve Our Neighborhoods founder Misty Haji-Sheikh. Haji-Sheikh raised a point of order about the legality of the meeting. The “retreat” meeting was billed as Committee of the Whole, which the online version of the Municipal Code says takes place on the second and fourth Mondays each month, and in council chambers. Coming on a Thursday and being held at NIU, last night’s meeting met neither requirement.

Or maybe it did. City attorney Dean Frieders — who by the way got to take off his lawyer hat last night and help develop public policy, while citizens in the audience had to wait four hours to speak — said the applicable ordinance has been changed and the city is complying with the new rule, but that it just hasn’t been posted to the city’s website yet.

Here’s what the Open Meetings Act says:

(5 ILCS 120/2.02) (from Ch. 102, par. 42.02)
Sec. 2.02. Public notice of all meetings, whether open or closed to the public, shall be given as follows:
(a) Every public body shall give public notice of the schedule of regular meetings at the beginning of each calendar or fiscal year and shall state the regular dates, times, and places of such meetings.

So even if the city is following changed meeting schedule rules — and I am by no means sure this is the case, until I can check a certified copy of the ordinance — it neglected to post the new ones in the Muni Code by the time the new fiscal year began July 1.

Once again, citizens are getting bad information despite good-faith attempts to look it up.

Anyway, the usual way to address a point of order is for the chair to make a ruling on whether a breach of the rules has occurred, and if so to resolve it.

Mayor Rey’s response to Misty Haji-Sheikh was to say, “Take it up with the Attorney General.”

In the excitement, the meeting proceeded without council’s having approved the agenda.

Newspaper coverage of the meeting is here.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor has accepted my Request for Review of the DeKalb city council’s decision of May 26 to raise the city manager’s pay without public discussion.

From the Request:

There was no public deliberation of this matter even though citizens requested beforehand, both privately and publicly, that Council remove the item from the consent agenda to discuss and vote on it separately.

I believe a reasonable person would conclude that the matter had been discussed in closed session, which of course is allowed by the Open Meetings Act. However, OMA requires that closed session deliberation on personnel matters must end with public action, including recitation of the action item and giving other information to educate the public before the final vote is taken. These things did not happen, so the public was deprived of information such as why the raise is justified, how it affects the current budget, and why the decision was made to make it retroactive.

Although I did not specifically allege that an improper closed session took place — my focus is on council’s failure to bring what was discussed in closed session to light — the PAC will review both open and closed session meeting minutes. And there’s a question hanging: Who’s bright idea was it to place the raise on the consent agenda to avoid public deliberation, and how was consensus reached? The personnel exception to OMA allows only deliberation of:

The appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance, or dismissal of specific employees of the public body or legal counsel for the public body, including hearing testimony on a complaint lodged against an employee of the public body or against legal counsel for the public body to determine its validity. [5 ILCS 120/2(c)(1)]

Nothing in this exception allows for discussion about how to dodge public openness via consent agenda.

To my knowledge, three citizens requested of council members that they remove the item from the consent agenda for separate consideration. Council used to honor these requests. If they had done so on May 26, the city wouldn’t have to explain its actions now. Too bad.

In her article about Ron Walter’s background and employment at Northern Illinois University under President Doug Baker, Kelly Bauer noted that the consultant was paid even when his calendar indicated he had no scheduled work.

It appears Bauer intended to get to the bottom of it — the above article is labeled Part One — but Baker refused to talk to Northern Star staff about the matter.

Fortunately, the response to the Freedom of Information Act request that enabled us to understand Walters’ refusal to return improperly reimbursed travel expenses also sheds light on the special pay arrangement between Walters and Baker. Read the rest of this entry

Earlier this month, the Daily Chronicle gave us an update:

An audit of the university in March, completed by Illinois Auditor General William G. Holland, found that NIU had improperly reimbursed [Ron] Walters and also didn’t comply with a variety of guidelines for internal control and processes related to procurement and contracts.

Walters had received $31,945 of travel compensation. which shouldn’t have been provided because the cost was from traveling between the university and his home in Washington.[sic]

“Travel expenses between an employee’s official headquarters and home are not reimbursable,” the audit reads.

What the Chronicle did not explain was why Walters is refusing to reimburse the university. Luckily for us, a citizen requested records under the Freedom of Information Act pertaining to Walters’ work for NIU and has shared them.

I’ve placed key documents that tell the story here.

Still on the subject of DeKalb’s service agreement with website designer CivicPlus.

There are two versions available: the agreement included in the February 9 agenda packet, and the version that Mayor John Rey signed on February 11.

No, they are not the same.

Yes, it is disturbing to think that we would be reading one version of a contract while city council votes on another.

They apparently continued to work on it after posting the agenda, and didn’t bother to update so the public could look at the same contract that council was voting on.

Another possibility would be that contract provisions were amended during the meeting, except there is nothing in the meeting minutes to indicate anything of the sort happened.

I’ll pull out an example of one of these differences between the two documents that I’ve found so far. Read the rest of this entry

After having pointed out that DeKalb’s new website doesn’t pass accessibility tests and going back and forth with city staff over the issue, I’ve finally remembered something else. I have some related documents on hand that were released by the city in response to a request for information on communications between City of DeKalb and CivicPlus, the website design firm that was ultimately hired February 9.

The following is the accessibility provision from the service agreement signed by Mayor Rey on February 11, 2015 (my emphases):

37. CivicPlus will create the website to comply with all WCAG 2.0 guidelines the Client requires. Upon completion of the site, the Client will be responsible for page content and compliance. Our designers and programmers automatically implement all the accessibility features necessary to ensure your site is compliant with accessibility standards outlined within Section 508. We will make recommendations on best practices for keeping your content accessible for all users by ensuring that, among other things:

  • All menu items are clickable
  • Submenus display throughout the site
  • Alt tags are used for images
  • Site maps are dynamically generated
  • Documents and links can be set to open in the same window
  • CivicPlus recognizes accessibility standards recommendations made by a variety of groups, including the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) as written in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Through adherence to Section 508, CivicPlus is able to meet almost all Priority One, Two and Three guidelines set forth in the WCAG. Those left unmet do not need to be addressed in order to allow basic access to content; some of the more stringent requirements of the WCAG may limit design and content development options.

    City of DeKalb signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to follow WCAG 2.0 standards, but then signed a contract with a website designer that does not require the designer to follow WCAG 2.0 standards — in part because accessibility might mess up their pretty design.

    Brilliant.

    Related posts:

    A City Narrative and the Aardvark that Ate it

    Five Reasons to Believe DeKalb Tried to Hide DOJ Communications about Website Compliance Issues

    While there are several things wrong with the city’s new Freedom of Information Act policy when it comes to direct violations of FOIA as a law, there is also something larger and more insidious at work here.

    What I’m talking about is that the FOIA policy item was placed as a resolution on the consent agenda of the meeting. The move side-stepped the obligation to hold first and second readings and have a final roll call vote.

    An even more basic error is that the city is now writing resolutions where they should be crafting ordinances. The consequence is that there are now a bunch of rules that now ostensibly apply to us, that we can’t look up in the Municipal Code. If we don’t stop this trend, we’ll end up with a bunch of “handbooks” with rules that the public is expected to follow, but which much of the public can’t access, or perhaps won’t even know exist.

    What’s the difference between a resolution and an ordinance? An ordinance is a permanent, enforceable local law. A resolution is a written statement of a municipality’s opinion, will or intent.

    Here’s an example of a resolution. It has a lot of “whereas-es” explaining the intent to authorize an intergovernmental agreement, and more importantly it’s not trying to regulate Jen Q. Public.

    I believe the city passed this measure as a resolution in order to avoid public discussion and to keep the provisions off the books and therefore out of the hands of people who would embarrass them about their missteps.

    DeKalb’s city council both introduced and passed a Freedom of Information Act policy last night.

    Yes, there was a rush to put into place a FOIA policy written by city attorney Dean Frieders, who is proven to have trod upon the Open Meetings Act previously. As you might well guess, there are also problems with the new policy, and by this I mean the city has placed a seal of approval on illegal acts. Read the rest of this entry

    ***Update*** 6/25/2015: I finally got a response to my letter telling council and top management staff about accessibility issues with the newly-launched city website. Someone had handed off the letter to DeKalb’s management analyst, Lauren Stott (one of the staff members who withheld estimates for a simple accessibility fix vs. a complete redesign, despite direct requests for this information from council members). Here’s what she said:

    Thanks for your email. The City has worked with CivicPlus to ensure website accessibility is provided for all users. Web-based accessibility checkers such as wave.webaim.org and Powermapper.com access a website’s html code, but aren’t as effective in assessing content customized with CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). The City of DeKalb’s website, in its state of being fully customized, heavily utilizes the CSS design language along with html. Therefore, the Web-based accessibility checkers register items on the site as errors, when in fact they just represent a departure from the typical html language the accessibility tools are designed and equipped to assess. In its contract with the City of DeKalb, the website developer has agreed to follow not only Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act but also Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. The portion of the agreement that outlines those specific requirements is included below.

    1. While the contract might call for complying with WCAG, that is certainly not what happened. The “Accessibility” page on the website says the site conforms to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, period. Another “tell” is the color contrast problem. Section 508 only mentions contrast in that it requires that applications not interfere with user settings. WCAG 2.0 requires a contrast ratio between text and foreground be set within a certain range. Many pages do not meet this requirement, such as the “Job Opportunities” page that, according to the WAVE checker, contains 27 contrast errors between background and link text.

    2. Since Mac McIntyre introduced us to the WAVE accessibility tool, Mac sent Stott’s explanation to WAVE. Here’s what their representative had to say:

    WAVE evaluates page accessibility after CSS has been applied and account for CSS in identifying potential accessibility issues. The developer’s explanation is not accurate. Each of the errors identified by WAVE indicate an actual end user accessibility issue.

    I told Lauren Stott I didn’t wish to discuss this anymore with a person whose word I can’t take at face value. Then I invited city council members to send Stott’s explanation to accessibility checker websites for themselves.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Original Post Read the rest of this entry

    The determination arrived Friday. Find it here.

    The Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) has found that City of DeKalb violated the Open Meetings Act (OMA) in two ways when it approved a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice on January 12:

  • The city misused the exception to open meetings having to do with imminent/pending litigation by failing to first make a finding that there actually was imminent/pending litigation.
  • The city failed to take final action (vote) to approve the agreement in open session.

  • While both violations are important in helping council members understand the OMA better, as well as to evaluate the performance of their attorney AKA SuperLawyer, it’s the second that probably has more implications for how city business is done in DeKalb. Read the rest of this entry