In a recent post, CityEthics’ Robert Wechsler tackles the issue of public officials’ attacking citizens who question their ethics (my emphasis).

…[W]hen they engage in ethical misconduct, when they misuse their office or deal irresponsibly with their conflicts of interest, then they are acting not in their own right, but as government officials. And as government officials, they have an obligation not to attack those who make accusations against them. This is a misuse of office for one’s own benefit that, in most cases, is worse than the ethical misconduct they have been accused of. Government officials can deny that they engaged in this misconduct (if indeed they didn’t) and they have a right to defend themselves in an ethics proceeding, but that is all.

And, ahem, about the hired attack dogs:

And their agents have no more right than this. Officials should make this clear to their attorney (government attorneys should already understand their own fiduciary obligations) and publicly counter any inappropriate statement, as well as apologizing to anyone an attorney has attacked on their behalf.

DeKalb citizens who speak up are no strangers to bad treatment from this city regime as well as the one it replaced. Indeed, during the last council meeting, Alderman Noreiko used the time usually devoted to ward reports to attack citizens who had spoken during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Wechsler says that ethics commissions should intervene when public officials or their attorneys go on the attack. DeKalb, of course, doesn’t have one yet but this is another good reason why we should.


Illinois’ Model Ethics Ordinance & City of DeKalb

Public Participation Project: Your State’s Free Speech Protection

If you haven’t heard, banker Tim Struthers has been appointed by Governor Rauner to the NIU Board of Trustees, pending approval by the Illinois Senate. Trouble is, there’s compelling evidence of major conflicts of interest in his appointment, which the Edgar County Watchdogs have outlined admirably.

Struthers presently serves on the DeKalb County Sanitary District, The NIU Foundation Board, and holds over five million dollars of NIU money on a daily basis in his bank. If the past informs the future, we should look closely at an incident in recent history where Mr. Struthers leveraged his banks [sic] relationship with NIU, the City of DeKalb, and the NIU Foundation.

The Watchdogs are speaking, of course, of the College Town Partners public-private partnership deal for redevelopment involving NIU, City of DeKalb, two banks and a developer.

Representatives of Struthers’ bank drafted the partnership documents, which included a memorandum of understanding and a 50-page operating agreement that were secret until leaked to members of a neighborhood group following a May 2014 meeting of the parties.

To look at the agreements it’s obvious they were unworkable. For example, there is no way DeKalb’s city manager could legally have managed a private partnership operating in the same city and using DeKalb taxpayers’ money; a confidentiality clause was also problematic. As I wrote at the time, “Whoever developed [these agreements]…possesses no grasp of the ‘public’ part of public projects.”

Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act indicate that a press release distributed by Preserve Our Neighborhoods on May 27, 2014, resulted in a local radio station contacting Mayor John Rey about the partnership. Rey in turn contacted Struthers and NIU officials to discuss the matter. Struthers responded in detail.

By the way, Michael and Misty Haji-Sheikh of Preserve Our Neighborhoods have spent the past year and a half requesting, fighting for, and sifting through emails, calendars and other records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and whether or not the College Town Partners signed something is still anything but clear.

…the Illinois model ordinance [for adoption by local units of government] is not even minimal. It only deals with political activities and gifts. There is nothing about conflicts; the word doesn’t even appear. To call it an ethics ordinance is like calling a burglary law a criminal code.
~ Robert Wechsler,

Minimal as it is, City of DeKalb still can’t get it right. Remember when DeKalb Mayor Rey was called out for using his city email account for political activities? He was “admonished” by the city manager, who is the designated ethics advisor for the city. Even beyond the fact that city council members are the collective boss of city staff and shouldn’t be “admonished” by any city employee, that’s not how a complaint is supposed to be handled. Here’s what the Office of the Attorney General has to say:

Because it is vital that officers and employees understand the ethics laws, Article 15 of the Model Ordinance provides for the designation of an Ethics Advisor to whom officers and employees can address questions or concerns regarding compliance with its provisions, as well as other ethics matters, such as filing Statements of Economic Interest, where required.

Get it? Advisor. Handles questions and concerns, not complaints. Complaints are supposed to go to an ethics commission if the local unit has adopted this part of the model ordinance, and if the local government has not adopted a commission (as DeKalb has not), complaints are supposed to go “to an attorney representing the entity for review and prosecution.”

Did the city attorney not know this, or was he counting on no one’s looking it up?

Obviously, the city has not yet adopted enough of the state’s model ordinance language to address its responsibility to penalize ethics scofflaws like Mayor Rey. Considering that local units of government, home rule or not, are required to adopt regulations that are “no less restrictive” than those contained in the Ethics Act, and “admonishment” is lesser than prosecution, DeKalb should correct its ethics ordinance right away.

The AG’s model ordinance is here. It is 11 pages long.

DeKalb’s ethics ordinance is here. It is two pages long.

Mayor Rey accepted the gift of a trip worth more than $1,000 in September 2013, according to Northern Illinois University records recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Rey and NIU President Doug Baker traveled to Moscow, Idaho, to foster better “town-gown” relations and to take in a football game between NIU and the University of Idaho.

NIU paid for the mayor’s plane tickets and reimbursed him for his hotel stay. See the documentation here.

State of Illinois rules allow for some exceptions to its gift ban, such as travel expenses incurred “to discuss State business” and for “intergovernmental gifts” and these exceptions have no specified monetary limits. DeKalb has adopted state rules in their entirety into its Municipal Code, so it doesn’t appear any were broken.

However, that should not preclude the public from making judgments about Rey’s judgment, the size of the gift (which, after all, involves public funds) and its implications for town and gown.

And Illinois law does allow local governments to pass ethics ordinances that are more restrictive than what’s on the state books.

Remember Mark Todd? He’s the former VP of Farmers and Traders State Bank in Shabbona who got himself appointed DeKalb County Treasurer, ran unopposed for the same office as the bank failed, and then resigned to move to Hawaii.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is just finishing up with him.

The FDIC considered the matter and determined it had reason to believe that:

(a) The Respondent has engaged or participated in violations, unsafe or unsound banking practices, and/or breaches of fiduciary duty as an institution-affiliated party of Farmers’ and Traders’ State Bank, Shabbona, Illinois (“Bank”);

(b) By reason of such violations, practices acid/or breaches of fiduciary duty, the Bank has suffered financial loss or other damage, the interests of the Bank’s depositors have been or could be prejudiced, and Respondent has received financial gain or other benefit; and

(c) Such violations, practices and/or breaches of fiduciary duty involve personal dishonesty on the part of the Respondent or demonstrate the Respondent’s willful or continuing disregard for the safety or soundness of the Bank.

The FDIC further determined that such violations, practices and/or breaches of fiduciary duty demonstrate the Respondent’s unfitness to serve as a director, office, person participating in the conduct of the affairs, or as an institution-affiliated party, of the Bank, any other insured depository institution, or any other agency or organization enumerated in section 8(e)(7)(A) of the Act, 12 U.S.C. § 1818(e)(7)(A).

Todd has waived his right to a hearing on the above allegations and entered into an agreement with FDIC that he is prohibited (except with express written permission from FDIC) from “participating in any manner in the conduct of the affairs of any financial institution or organization” including voting for directors and so on.

To read the prohibition order yourself, go here to find and download the PDF file.

**Update** 1/26. Related: “Sales tax coffers could get boost with new law”. Discusses the Marketplace Fairness Act and its impact (if it ever passes the U.S. House) on state revenues.
**Update** 1 p.m. Related: “Now comes the Internet Sales Consultants”. It provides more food for thought on this scheme, as well as a description of an omission that sounds like a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act.

DeKalb’s city council is considering a new kind of retail revenue source. You should know about it because your tax money is involved.


City leaders are trying to lure Internet retailers with an 85 percent sales-tax rebate.

The first step in the coaxing process came Monday when aldermen unanimously approved an agreement with a shell company called Great Lakes Economic Development LLC.

The company was created by Tom McPeak, a partner with Atlanta-based Barnwell Consulting, who said he has an undisclosed client interested in setting up shop in DeKalb.

McPeak is an acquaintance of Roger Hopkins. Hopkins used to head the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation, and after that contracted with the city to provide economic development services for a time. And it looks like he’s done us a solid in facilitating an introduction.

Let’s take a closer look at the potential in this gift. Read the rest of this entry

I hardly know where to begin.

In response to a tenant complaint, at 10 a.m. Friday, city inspectors met building owner Pat Bragg at the Edgebrook Manor Apartments and within hours they had decided to condemn the property, requiring everyone living there to leave their homes within 24 hours.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who lived on Roosevelt Street complained to a City of DeKalb code inspector that her landlord had refused to properly clean up flood damage to her apartment. The landlord immediately terminated the month-to-month lease. My friend struggled to find a new place even though she had 30 days’ notice and, in fact, she had to couch surf for a month or two. It was horribly disruptive to her life.

So I don’t get that nobody bats an eyeball when City of DeKalb boots people out with 24 hours’ notice and no solid alternatives. Read the rest of this entry

As indicated a few days ago, I have concerns about DeKalb’s hotel/motel inspection and licensing ordinance.

The good news is, the city does recognize that some people are permanent residents of hotels and motels.

“Permanent resident” means any person who occupied or has the right to occupy any room or rooms in a hotel or motel for not less than thirty (30) consecutive days.

However, status as a “permanent resident” only means that the usual 7% hotel/motel tax is not charged. It has nothing to do with tenancy or conferring tenants’ rights in long-term living situations in motels.

This is consistent with state law, which tends to keep considerations of landlords and innkeepers separate. Generally such a separation plays out reasonably, except in the case of people having to use cheap motels to keep a couple of walls between themselves and the streets on a long-term and/or indefinite basis.

Let’s consider how this works in case of a motel shutdown such as City of DeKalb’s closure of the Travel Inn.

In an email, Mayor Rey said, “The City is very sensitive to dispersing permanent residents from short-term rentals onto the streets. It is my understanding Lynne that due notice is given upon such displacements.”

“Due notice” is not required by DeKalb ordinance, and my Freedom of Information Act request returned no evidence of any such notice. Yet, conversation on Facebook suggests that people were indeed booted out onto the street.

Mayor Rey also said:

The closure of the local motel was not a result of city causation. We were merely enforcing health/sanitary living condition standards for short-term rental available to visitors.

Irony alert! Living on the street can be bad for your health, too, which is why people will put up with fleabag conditions to avoid it. Especially those with children.

I’m also pretty sure that if harm should come to someone as a direct result of being kicked out of his or her residence without time to make other arrangements, it would put the city at risk of legal action.

The larger issue, of course, is simply one of conscience. I want local government to have one. You?

Ethics “In a Nutshell”

Robert Wechsler, director of, has just released a new intro to local government ethics called “Local Government Ethics Programs in a Nutshell”, in which he has distilled an 800-page digital book and years of blog posts into a 27-page resource for public officials, journalists and others interested in good government. Here’s a bit out of the intro:

Government ethics is not about being “good” or “a person of integrity.” It’s not something officials learn at home, at school, or in their house of worship. In fact, conduct that is praiseworthy outside of government, such as helping a family member get a job or returning a favor one has been given, is considered wrong in a government context…It is about preserving institutional rather than personal integrity. Government ethics decision-making should be just another professional routine.

We also sometimes talk about ethics in the public domain as public morality vs. private morality, and I favor an approach that deals with what to do when conflicts occur, not if. Read the rest of this entry

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. Read the rest of this entry