The latest in the College Town Partners saga is that NIU has apparently changed its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policy. It now favors heavy redaction.

The following is NIU’s response this week to a FOIA request made by Misty Haji-Sheikh of the north Fifth Ward group called Preserve Our Neighborhoods.

Click on the Twitter image for the full-sized view.

Only two bits of meaningful information are left: the subject matter and the recipient of the email. The city would have us believe that its newbie city manager wasn’t really involved in College Town Partners, but now one could reasonably assume Gaura has swum in the thick of things since early in her tenure — or perhaps even before that.

Let’s look at some more. Read the rest of this entry

For all of NIU’s having publicly “backed away” from a partnership for redevelopment with City of DeKalb et al last spring, it seems the institution had already secretly created a “charity” with a local developer and a banker in December 2013 for similar purposes.

The documents were Tweeted to me.

Read the rest of this entry

In July 2013, the city council of DeKalb approved the DeKalb City Center plan, an update of the 2007 Downtown Revitalization Plan.

One of the key components of the plan is:

Leverage TIF to study the feasibility of and potentially promote the development of additional City Center traffic generators, such as a hotel/conference center, children’s museum, bowling alley, movie theater, or additional dining and entertainment options[.]

Except that by the time the plan was approved, DeKalb had already begun leveraging TIF to study the feasibility of a downtown hotel and convention center.

And had already begun negotiating with a developer.

And was already talking about helping to close a “feasibility gap” with public funds.

Why haven’t you heard about this? It’s because of the city manager’s spending authority. The city manager can authorize up to $20,000 in spending without going to the city council for approval. In the case of the hotel/convention center, the first study — dated January 2013 — cost $12,000. A supplement was completed this year for $7,500.

How convenient.

You can look at some of the documents, obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, at the City Barbs Blog Facebook Group.

Let’s start with a summary of events.

— The group now known as Preserve Our Neighborhoods (PON) was formed last spring in response to concerns that residents were not being included in DeKalb-NIU redevelopment plans that would directly affect them.

— Misty Haji-Sheikh of PON received unsigned documents from an anonymous sender regarding a corporation formed for the purpose of redeveloping the John Street neighborhood.

— The corporation, College Town Partners, was of public interest because NIU and City of DeKalb were named as partners in documents related to its purpose and operations.

— Haji-Sheikh asked NIU and City of DeKalb for documents related to College Town Partners under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). DeKalb denied her some of the information under an exemption to FOIA for preliminary drafts/proposals.

— Haji-Sheikh requested that the Attorney General’s Office of Public Access review DeKalb’s denial of information to ensure the city has used the FOIA exemption properly. The AG accepted this Request for Review.

— City of DeKalb responded to the AG’s request to provide the legal basis for using the FOIA exemption(s) but in an unusual move the city asked for — and received — blanket confidentiality of its response.

— Haji-Sheikh is allowed under the review process to respond to the city’s response and she did so even though she hasn’t been allowed to read it.

Michael Haji-Sheikh has provided Misty’s response to the AG via Twitter. Read the rest of this entry

The Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) has agreed to examine a City of DeKalb denial of information to a representative of a neighborhood group.

Here’s the usual drill. Upon the PAC accepting a Request for Review it invites the public body to respond with the legal basis for denial. The response is shared with requester, who gets a chance to respond to the response. PAC eventually delivers an opinion about whether the denial was legal under FOIA.

What’s unusual here is that the city is requesting that its response be kept wholly confidential. That’s right; DeKalb doesn’t want the requester to see any part of it. Read the rest of this entry

I’ve read the College Town Partners documents that were leaked to the Preserve Our Neighborhoods (PON) group. (Want copies? Send an email to preserveourneighborhoods@gmail.com.)

The agreements, which were never signed, lay out a corporate partnership between City of DeKalb, NIU, a local developer and two banks.

They strike me as kind of nuts, actually, being fraught with conflicts of interest that government bodies could never ignore. Whoever developed them — at this point I’m envisioning somebody’s partially demented but clout-heavy uncle who must be humored — possesses no grasp of the “public” part of public projects.

For example, the agreements place the DeKalb city manager in the position of manager of a self-interested company operating in the same community. They also attempt to make rules for the participation of the government bodies (e.g.: confidentiality, non-compete clause, predetermined developer) but that’s the flip of what’s supposed to happen.

The plans as written didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in sunlight. Still, somebody thought enough of them to stuff 60 pages into an envelope to mail to the PON folks. Why? I think it must be a warning that an awful lot of planning has been going on behind closed doors, and that some of it may not represent the public interest.

Speaking of which, let’s look at the recent naughtiness of your mayor that ties in here. Read the rest of this entry

NIU president Baker and the mayor each spoke to the group, as did NIU vice-president Bill Nicklas and an architect who explained the process involved in the development of the Bold Futures Thesis.

In a nutshell, NIU wants to transform the thesis into a real plan for better use of the physical campus in nurturing a sense of place. It is one of several initiatives they hope will improve enrollment and retention of the hip, urban Millennial Generation.

When audience members expressed concern that the university is also pushing development plans for nearby historic neighborhoods without their input, the NIU representatives seemed genuinely surprised that they’d reached this conclusion. The NIU thesis isn’t a plan yet, they said; and besides, the focus is on the campus center.

Funny. I’d reached the same conclusion that the audience did when I attended the March 15 City of DeKalb strategic planning meeting. There, VP Nicklas shared his top budget priorities that involved the city and my notes show one of them is “Locust Street enhancements.”

So, I think maybe the NIU folks are back-pedaling a little.

However, I also believe the city has hitched its caboose to the NIU train with a little sleight-of-hand. Read the rest of this entry

Can DeKalb Really Help Fix NIU?

The Daily Chronicle’s editorial board scolded a group of residents this week for being total NIMBYs hating on good and necessary change.

[D]espite all the benefits that our communities draw from having the university here, there is resistance to ideas that could change the nearby neighborhoods, particularly the Ellwood historic and Hillcrest neighborhoods, where residents have formed a community group, Preserve Our Neighborhoods, in response.

People by nature don’t like change. It’s natural for them to be skeptical. But fighting to stop any change will not be good for anyone, really.

My observations suggest this is a mistaken assumption. Group members aren’t resisting change per se but rather are targeting the utter gall of NIU’s handing down a plan for their neighborhoods without their input.

Now that Preserve Our Neighborhoods has succeeded in forcing something of a pause, maybe we could productively use it to think through the notion that widening sidewalks, installing tram service and building more housing are really the best uses of resources in combating the problem of plummeting enrollment. Read the rest of this entry

When we talk about NIU enrollment we are usually referring to the enrollment at all four campuses, which is the number NIU must report to the state.

With a drop of 4.9% as we had this year, a lot of questions come up. Hypothetically speaking, what if DeKalb had lost 10% but nobody knew because growth at other campuses made up for it?

I requested a more detailed breakdown under the Freedom of Information Act and was denied. During the subsequent review by the Public Access Counselor of the denial, however, counsel for NIU offered these numbers:

LocationFall
2008
Fall
2009
Fall
2010
Fall
2011
Fall
2012
DeKalb Only21, 68521, 37420, 82520, 00519, 012
Hoffman
Estates Only
505458438438381
Naperville
Only
476460483461398
Rockford
Only
170921305849
Other/Multiple
Locations
1, 5612, 0401, 9742, 0282, 029
Totals24, 39724, 42423, 85022, 99021, 869

“Other/Multiple Locations” means there are about 2,000 students who attend classes on more than one campus, and for whatever reason NIU assigns them to none. Leaving room for speculation is not ideal, but this is more information than we had before so to me it was worth the effort.

DeKalb’s Population Illusions

**Update: DHS enrollment projections for next year have been corrected from 17,000 to 1,700 and I appreciate receiving the email heads up.**

Possibly the worst argument in support of the land swap deal between District 428 and Shodeen is this:

The land near [DeKalb High School] offers more promise for the district than Kiwanis Park. School officials said 1,800 students are enrolled at DHS now, but that number could expand to 2,500 or 3,000 students in the future, making it necessary to plan for a expansion of DHS facilities in the future.

I see that a commenter at the online newspaper site has already pointed out, “The most recent report done by an actual demographer and not an extrapolater shows flat enrollment for 20 years.”

It’s true. There was a demography report done pre-referendum, while our community enjoyed tremendous growth; then a second one was completed at the insistence of District 428’s Facilities Planning Committee after the economy tanked. Projections from the second show DeKalb’s high school enrollment dropping under 1,700 next year and the year after (which makes me wonder how close an estimate is the 1,800 reported above).

Unfortunately, the school board had their fingertips packed firmly in their ears during the presentation of the second demographer’s report, and they built DeKalb High School for 3,000 students. This has led to operational difficulties such as having to open DHS short four of the custodians they needed.

So, talking about expansion of DHS with any urgency right now is just…just

Colonel Sandurz: Prepare ship for light speed.
Dark Helmet: No, no, no, light speed is too slow.
Colonel Sandurz: Light speed, too slow?
Dark Helmet: Yes, we’re gonna have to go right to ludicrous speed.

Yeah, that’s it: ludicrous speed.

Read the rest of this entry