DeKalb Public Library and Greed

In a post from January 10, I told you I’d continue trying to get information about the state’s Public Library Construction Grant Program since we knew so few of the institutions that won them.

Part of the reason it has taken so long to get back to you is that I goofed up my chance to fight for the information. Yep, I sure did. Since the Illinois State Library had always responded quite fully and promptly to previous Freedom of Information Act requests, I didn’t bother to make a copy of the request for the list of awardees. This time they denied me the document and I was unable to ask for a review of the decision because under FOIA you must provide a copy of the original FOIA request along with the Request for Review.

The lesson here, of course, is not to trust anybody — not even librarians. Read the rest of this entry

Justice is Served in Bell

We return our attention to Bell, California. Administrators and council members there paid themselves exorbitant salaries while cutting city services, overcharging taxes and fees, and creating a major municipal revenue source out of a vehicle impounding program.

This and more was accomplished in a roughly DeKalb-sized town with per capita income of $24,000.

Now, today I was sent a link (thanks!) to an article with this beautiful headline: Bell Council Members Guilty of Multiple Corruption Counts.

Five former council members were found guilty of stealing public money. Two former city administrators are still awaiting trial.

Key factors in the corruption seem to include a lack of oversight — Bell does not have its own newspaper — an aggressive city manager “mastermind,” and Bell’s status as a charter city, which allows its government to ignore state limits on salaries and other spending.

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Site news: Posting is sure to remain very light through the rest of March and into April as the write-in campaign for city clerk continues. One way to be notified when I’ve posted is to visit or ask to join the City Barbs Facebook group if you use FB a lot.

First off, I want to follow up on the question of repealing home rule in Mt. Vernon. Voters defeated the challenge, meaning home rule is retained. High profile business backers, a core group of “Vote No” volunteers plus use of social media are credited with the success.

While the Mt. Vernon pro-home rule group won with 57% of the vote, there was a veritable smackdown by 70% of voters of the proposition to make the city clerk’s office in DeKalb an appointed one. It’s difficult not to look at this as a referendum on city administration, and on the performance of city manager Mark Biernacki in particular. Let him laugh at the suggestion that the ballot question was an attempted power grab — that doesn’t make it untrue.

With the retention of an elected city clerk, congenitally optimistic residents like me can hope for a real watchdog in the position.

Lastly, I’d like to note that City Barbs is now seven years old.

Treat this as an open thread if you like. Name yer topic.

Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune: “Towns Borrow, You Pay”.

When the Trib covered the Rosemont story a few weeks ago, it looked at Home Rule but more tangentially. This time, the poster child is Bellwood and Home Rule, which gives municipalities free rein on borrowing and taxation, is front and center:

The vast majority of states — including all of the largest ones — do not offer municipalities such blank checks.

Ken Small of the Florida League of Cities said he would worry if his state had Illinois’ loose rules.

“It is like giving your teenager a credit card,” he said.

In Illinois’ home-rule municipalities, the onus is on voters to decipher the financial ramifications of what their local officials are doing. And even then, residents may only get a say come election time, and only if their local officials face competition on the ballot.

DeKalb residents never really get a say, because in addition to Home Rule it has the council-manager form of government. This means the CEO is the appointed city manager, not the mayor. Not only that, but the city manager has an employment contract with no expiration date on it. And furthermore we’ve been cursed with councils that, for whatever reason, don’t think we can do better.

When last we left our Mt. Vernon heroes, they had just presented a petition to have the question of revoking Home Rule put on the ballot in November.

I was a little alarmed that the Mt. Vernon city council had planned to vet the petition. In DeKalb this would probably constitute the kiss of death, but apparently democracy is still valued in some parts of Illinois.

The ballot wording voters will see is: “Should the people of Mt. Vernon, IL return the power to raise local taxes only by a vote from the people approving said tax, stopping the City Council from raising taxes through their sole power of Home Rule without your vote? If so vote Yes to Revoke Home Rule powers from the City of Mt. Vernon, in the County of Jefferson, State of Illinois, 62864.”

The Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce Past Presidents’ Council is reportedly launching a campaign to educate voters about Home Rule in Mt. Vernon, and what the consequences of repeal would be.

A Few Words About Video Gambling

The city council of DeKalb approved first reading last night of an ordinance that would overturn a ban on gambling devices to allow video gaming with payouts.

Also, in a daring use of Home Rule authority, it has decided to consider allowing the machines in an establishment where kids hang out.

Come August 27, probable date of second reading, we may be leaving more cautious communities in the dust! Guess who passed the ordinance below:

WHEREAS, states such as Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina have abandoned experiments with the legalization of video gaming because of regulatory difficulties, corruption, and the high social costs associated with this form of gambling; and

WHEREAS, video gaming is designed to entice people to play longer, faster, and at higher rates of wagering, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and

WHEREAS, the Mayor…and City Council agree that legalized video gaming would present a variety of adverse impacts on residents…including the potential for corruption, impact on the costs of law enforcement, regulatory difficulties, and high social costs; and

WHEREAS, the legalization of video gaming within the City…is not consistent with the family-oriented values reflected in our community as identified in the City’s Strategic Plan; and

WHEREAS, the overwhelming majority of input received from…citizens calls for prohibiting video gaming in the City…video gaming is prohibited within the corporate limits of the City…

Make the jump to see if you guessed right. Read the rest of this entry

Today the Chicago-Tribune published an investigative report about Rosemont and the family that runs it.

It’s a story about how the Stephens family has amassed riches and tremendous political clout.

Most of all, however, it is a story about Home Rule.

Illinois Home Rule allows:

  • unlimited borrowing

  • the option to forgo competitive bidding on contracts

  • unprecedented levels of nepotism and other ethical lapses

And no, this isn’t just about the folks in Rosemont. Other Illinois taxpayers are on the hook for Rosemont ventures with $7 million in taxi tax earmarks and subsidies annually, while the villagers enjoy grants of up to $3,000 each.

**Updated July 31 at end of post.**

Believe it or not, there’s at least one limit to Illinois Home Rule! Here’s a post from the blog of the Illinois Association of Realtors:

I was discussing a transaction in the home rule community of West Frankfort. “My client was surprised to learn at closing she had to pay a fee of 1 percent of the sale price to the city—which meant $1,200 out of her pocket,” the REALTOR® said.

Surprised by the transfer tax, I began researching the history of the real estate transfer tax. The Village of West Frankfort passed a referendum in 2006 making it a home rule community. In 2008, citing their home rule status, the council passed an ordinance creating a transfer fee on the transfer of leases surrounding the city-owned lake. Illinois Association of REALTORS® (IAR) Legal Counsel found that under state law before they implement a transfer tax, the question must be put on the ballot for referendum for voters to decide.

The IAR reportedly wrote a letter to the City of West Frankfort explaining this and now awaits a reply.

I’m pretty sure that if the tax were legal without a referendum, the City of DeKalb would be collecting it already. Read the rest of this entry

Of course I’m talking about the grand opening of the Nippon Sharyo railcar manufacturing plant and the potential birth of a supply chain cluster.

And they don’t even have Home Rule!

Let’s treat this as an open thread.

Illinois communities automatically receive Home Rule powers when their populations reach 25,000. Mt. Vernon is not one of them because it’s too small (about Sycamore-sized). The city’s residents had to vote for Home Rule, and they reportedly did it in order to finance a sewer project in the 80s.

So what’s the problem? According to one of the current petitioners, Steven Casper, Sr., Mt. Vernon approved Home Rule without understanding the residents would lose their power to vote on tax increases.

Casper and three other Mt. Vernon residents organized a petition, which collected 1,031 signatures from registered voters, to revoke the home rule.

“I don’t know why somebody did not do this before now,” he said. “[We] just don’t like the idea the city has the ultimate power to raise taxes for whatever they want, whenever they want.”

The group only needed about 365 signatures, Casper says.

Supposedly the city council will vet the petition before it can go on the November ballot. This does not sound right to me. The council had its chance to put the question on the ballot themselves. Since they did not — this is the reason folks had to collect signatures — my understanding is that the city clerk should certify the petition for placement of the question on the ballot unless the petition is challenged by one or more individuals. And challenges are adjudicated by election panels, not city councils.

I hope the Mt. Vernon group has competent legal counsel.