DeKalb used to have in-house legal counsel, but now has contracts with individuals and firms to supply legal services.

One of the legal service providers is Dean Frieders of Frieders Law, LLC, who supposedly works for DeKalb three days per week.* Frieders is required by his contract with the city to supply all of his own staff for the $208,000 per year that we pay him. If any employee of City of DeKalb were to work for Frieders in any capacity, it would constitute a violation of that city contract.

Trouble is, DeKalb still employs a full-time legal assistant, and it looks like she works for Frieders. I say this because her actual job description requires her to assist legal counsel as well as the city manager. Read the rest of this entry

More Gift Card Info

A couple of weeks ago, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request regarding DeKalb’s practice of buying gift cards for employees, the latest round of which occurred in December 2015 when City of DeKalb spent $5,400 on “employee holiday gift cards” for some 230 city employees.

Among other things, the FOIA request asked for the following: “Records that indicate the cards were properly counted as compensation and that federal and state withholding occurred.” The response was as follows:

No responsive records have been identified. The City determined that in previous years, the cards were not included within taxable amounts. The City has worked to ensure strict compliance in prospective years by eliminating these gift cards from proposed budgets; there is no proposed expenditure in the draft FY16.5 budget that would include gift cards of this
nature. That change in practice was made after an internal review of this matter by the City earlier this year.

Read here for the IRS rules specific to de minimus fringe benefits when the employer is a government. Cash and cash equivalents — yeah, this means gift cards, too — cannot be excluded from income and are always taxable, regardless of amount.

Oops. That’s almost $16,000 in untaxed compensation since 2013, guys.

Also, since the city included in its response no memos or other records of the elimination of gift cards for employees, we are free to assume that the “internal review” and decision to terminate the practice of giving gift cards occurred when administrators received my FOIA request dated April 21.

See the original FOIA request and response here.

Here’s a new state law we can all get behind: Public Act 098-0738, which requires certain disclosures pertaining to city and county audits.

Introduced by Rep. Tom Demmer, the law went into effect this month. Here’s another version with the deets.

Of particular interest to me is the now-required sharing of the auditors’ letters to management that accompany each audit. It was just a couple years ago that a tipster told me there was such a thing. Once aware of their existence, I began making Freedom of Information Act requests for these letters, and boy have they ever been illuminating. Just look at the posts I’ve done:

City of DeKalb Had ‘Excess Expenditures’ of $3.1 Million in FY2013

DeKalb’s Police Department Overspent by $700,000 last fiscal year

The latest management letter, for FY2015, was published with the annual financial report in the December 14 council meeting agenda. Start on p. 19 of the PDF. Notice the addition of the management response to each item of concern, too.

What a difference good transparency laws can make. Hats off to Rep. Demmer.

Hats off to anonymous tipsters, too.

This is popping up on emails from City of DeKalb.

Disclaimer: This is a transmission from the City of DeKalb that is confidential and proprietary. If you are not the intended recipient, copying or distributing the contents of this message is expressly prohibited. If you have received this message in error, please destroy it and notify the City immediately. This email is the property of the City of DeKalb and the City reserves the right to retrieve and read any message created, sent or received, including the right to monitor messages of City employees or representatives at any time, without notice. Freedom of Information Act Requests submitted electronically should be submitted to foia@cityofdekalb.com (for general requests) or policefoia@cityofdekalb.com (for requests directed to the Police Department)

1. By default under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), communications generated by, or otherwise under the control of, a public body are public records that belong to all of us. Exceptions for confidentiality or any other reason must be narrowly applied on a case-by-case basis and defensible in court.

2. City of DeKalb is trying to prohibit the copying and distribution of public records? This strikes me as an intimidation tactic. News flash: If information is honestly so sensitive that city people are worried about its going astray, they should send old-fashioned letters, enveloped and certified. But I’ve even seen the message in emails that contain responses to FOIA requests, which are 100% public by definition. Ridiculous.

3. It’s quite disturbing to think that city employees have given themselves the right to spy on their bosses. Whose job descriptions include the “monitoring” of elected officers? Is this why the city manager needs so much more hired help than the last one did?

Conclusion: The blanket disclaimer — which, by the way, I pulled from an email sent by City of DeKalb’s own FOIA officer — is garbage. Copy. Distribute. Share. Laugh. It’s the American thing to do.

**UPDATE 11/24** Via email, the city still maintains that the redaction “facially” applied to its FOIA response. However:

[A]fter further discussion with the Police Department, we believe that the Resident Officer Program’s mission is furthered by engaging with the public wherever possible, and where doing so does not endanger public or officer safety. Accordingly, the City is providing an un-redacted copy of the record at issue as per your request.

Whether or not I would have prevailed in the state’s review of the redaction, the reversal is a good reminder that most exceptions to FOIA — assuming they’re properly applied — are allowed but not commanded.
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The City of Elgin has a nationally recognized community policing endeavor called the Resident Officer Program of Elgin (ROPE). Here’s the webpage. Links from that webpage take you to a map of ROPE coverage, as well as to pages devoted to each of five ROPE officer locations that include the resident officers’ photos, contact information and introductory greetings.

Oak Park has a Resident Beat Officer Program (RBO). Here’s the webpage. There are eight patrol zones; click on zone headings for the beat officers’ names, photos and contact information.

City of DeKalb has a Resident Officer Program (ROP). Here’s the webpage. The description identifies an Officer Burke who lives on the 600 block of North Eleventh Street, and there is a written description of the ROP territory. There is no map, no address, no photo or contact information for this or any other officer.

Part of this is about how much DeKalb’s $50,000+ website sucks, but there’s more to it. On Friday, I received an email from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer that read, “As you may know, the City utilizes multiple police officers in its Resident Officer Program (ROP).”

No, I did not know that. How could I? The city’s website mentions exactly one resident officer, and there’s nothing in the Chronicle archives, either. Unlike those of other communities I looked up, there is virtually no current public information about this supposedly extensive public program.

Indeed, what I found were a couple articles published three years ago, when Officer Burke moved into a home that City of DeKalb purchased and renovated with Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds (an arrangement the city refers to as “enhanced” ROP). Read the rest of this entry

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.

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.

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