Early last month, DeKalb’s city council considered whether they should waive the usual bidding process and immediately sign a contract with a website designer who appears to be “besties” with the city manager. The reason for wanting to waive bidding? Staff claimed the city had a crisis foisted upon it by the U.S. Department of Justice following a recently completed review of DeKalb’s website. The DOJ had found the city non-compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act rules and had given DeKalb an ostensibly super-tight deadline for correcting the deficiencies.*

There is a whole lot to say about the discussion and multiple votes taken on this item and we may get around to saying it here, too.

However, today I want to concentrate on the negotiated, formal settlement agreement with DOJ that city seems reluctant to discuss explicitly in public meetings. Read the rest of this entry

**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.

Chronicle:

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’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

Via The Pantagraph today:

Ward 4 Alderman Judy Stearns on Dec. 6 filed a request for review with the Illinois attorney general’s public access counselor, which has since asked for more information from the city.

She alleged the council during a Nov. 15 closed session discussed issues not exempt from the state’s Open Meetings Act, including broad discussions of general hiring practices, a sought-after “culture change” and “why it is critical that the Council be totally united on the changes to be made, including the comment by our City Manager (David Hales) that a 5 to 4 vote is not acceptable.”

The other side of the story is that there may have been a couple of stray comments about policy in the midst of a discussion of specific employees. Discussion of individuals is an allowed exemption to OMA.

However, Ald. Stearns lists in the Request for Review seven non-exempt topics she says were discussed during the closed session. Stearns said she eventually left the closed session due to the non-exempt topics and that she has since consulted the Citizen Advocacy Center.

The required recording of the closed session will tell the tale to the PAC.

Don’t hold your breath for results, though. I’ve been waiting for an opinion on an OMA complaint for almost a year.

A link to this city council special meeting agenda for Wednesday dropped into my inbox October 9.

I am 99.9% sure the closed meeting is about creating a short list of candidates for city manager, which is important to us and by no means a secret.

But unless you recognize the significance of the timing, how would you know? You’d have to take extra steps to find out.

Next time they brag about their openness and terrific customer service, laugh.

Meanwhile, the default response to this useless agenda should be: “What else are you keeping secret that you shouldn’t?” Because that’s what unnecessary mystery does to trust.

The plaintiff in a federal free-speech case with implications for local government meetings finally has a court date: October 21. From the Rock River Times:

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Rockford resident and former Winnebago County Board chairman candidate Michael Castronovo, alleges multiple violations of his free-speech rights at Winnebago County Board meetings and at Public Works committee meetings.

Some of these alleged violations may be related to the December 2008 change made to county ordinance 2-65 where “zoning items, personnel matters, or any pending or threatened litigation involving the County” became restricted topics for citizens at county board meetings.

Though it hasn’t yet gone to trial, the case has survived several pre-trial hearings. During one of the hearings, the presiding judge confirmed that all government meetings — even committee meetings — must include public comment sessions per the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

The lawsuit itself, however, alleges Constitutional violations of the First Amendment; specifically, prohibitions on the content of public comment.

The city manager, not the mayor, is the chief executive officer in DeKalb’s council-manager form of government. Ideally we should be paying as much attention to selection of the city manager as we do the mayoral election — especially these days, when the city council declines to put expiration dates on their managers’ contracts and allows the manager to spend up to $20,000 at a time without council approval.

Personal conclusions notwithstanding, there is a process in place for hiring a city manager that is supposed to let the cream rise to the top. Recently I sifted through documents obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act to bring you an update. Read the rest of this entry

From a memo attached to the Committee of the Whole (CoW) meeting agenda for August 12:

1. 2.04(a)This section indicates that regular meetings of the City Council shall be convened no sooner than 7:00pm. As last meeting illustrated, when the City Council does not have material for a Committee of the Whole meeting, the Council may seek to move the regular meeting up to 6:00pm. Accordingly, a revision is suggested, to indicate that the COW or Council meeting shall not start prior to 6:00pm, unless otherwise directed by the Council for a special meeting.

Yes, the council violated its ordinance governing meeting conduct last meeting. But as long as state law — such as Open Meetings Act — is not violated, they can ignore any ordinance they want without penalty, except of course for the hits to their sterling reputations. Council can also review (and change) the rules at any time, which actually isn’t a bad idea for a new council. Read the rest of this entry

New Council Gets a Good Start

City of DeKalb employees and the group Ellwood Historic Neighborhood have hatched a new plan just in time to take up a line item in the FY2014 budget: Buy up multi-family homes in the north 5th Ward, convert them to single-family and resell each property at a loss. In fact:

“We have worked with a local realtor and contractor to identify a willing seller of a multiunit house in the neighborhood,” said David Castro, a member of the Ellwood House Neighborhood Group, a group of residents who have worked with the city in the past to restore the area.

Council has put this plan on hold. Good for you, council members! Personally, I would, too. I agree with Ald. Jacobson that DeKalb should not get into the business of property speculation. First and foremost because it is so, so bad at it (see: empty lots downtown). Read the rest of this entry

The two sides in a settlement conference on a federal lawsuit regarding public input at public meetings were deemed “too far apart” to come to terms, so it is expected a trial date will be set at a conference hearing June 21.

Two allegations from Count II of the suit, having to do with possible Freedom of Speech violations made by Winnebago County and some county officials, have survived a Motion of Summary Judgment. They are as follows (PDF):

Winnebago County’s motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, Count II remains as to the allegations that defendants violated Castronovo’s free speech rights by refusing to permit him to speak at the public works committee meetings and to the allegations that the Board Chairman instructed Castronovo that he could not speak before the Board as a whole if he were to name names in his speech.

If the Court finds that the chair did instruct Mike “C” Castronovo not to name names, it would constitute a content restriction, which is a First Amendment no-no. As for the allegation that the county did not permit his input at all during some meetings, the judge noted that the public works committee meetings are already covered by the state’s Open Meetings Act and as such must permit public comment during their meetings except under the exemptions for closed sessions. Read the rest of this entry