DeKalb’s city council both introduced and passed a Freedom of Information Act policy last night.

Yes, there was a rush to put into place a FOIA policy written by city attorney Dean Frieders, who is proven to have trod upon the Open Meetings Act previously. As you might well guess, there are also problems with the new policy, and by this I mean the city has placed a seal of approval on illegal acts. Read the rest of this entry

The determination arrived Friday. Find it here.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) has found that City of DeKalb violated the Open Meetings Act (OMA) in two ways when it approved a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice on January 12:

  • The city misused the exception to open meetings having to do with imminent/pending litigation by failing to first make a finding that there actually was imminent/pending litigation.
  • The city failed to take final action (vote) to approve the agreement in open session.

  • While both violations are important in helping council members understand the OMA better, as well as to evaluate the performance of their attorney AKA SuperLawyer, it’s the second that probably has more implications for how city business is done in DeKalb. Read the rest of this entry

    Council Needs New Counsel

    Sometimes we believe things that are completely false, and a lot of times belief holds strongest when it comes to having faith in professionals who, by definition, are supposed to have your back.

    That’s what I think is happening with the DeKalb city council: They are trusting that what city attorney Dean Frieders says about the law is right. Well, they shouldn’t.

    Today I’ll show you examples for why I have come to this conclusion, starting with the January settlement agreement with the Feds that was approved in secret. The city attorney says it was OK to do this because the city manager has the spending authority to sign contracts costing less than $20,000. I’m going to explain why it’s not OK.
    Read the rest of this entry

    Here’s an excerpt from a memo included with next week’s council meeting agenda:

    The City of DeKalb maintains Chapter 2 of the City Code which governs the City Council and meetings thereof. Old versions of the City Code included provisions which purported to prohibit public comment at certain meetings of the City Council or Committee of the Whole. In 2014, the City Council adopted Section 2.04(d) of the City Code, which clearly denotes that the public has the right to speak at any public meeting of the City Council or any derivative body thereof, including the Committee of the Whole.

    Nope, the Code specifically mentions the Planning & Zoning Commission but not Committee of the Whole (CoW).

    That’s important because Chapter Two of the Municipal Code still includes exceptions to allowing public comment, particularly in the case of CoWs.

    c) The intent and purpose of the Committee of the Whole meetings shall be primarily for the purpose of discussion of consideration items brought before the Council and various smatters which require a presentation and/or upon which discussion is anticipated, but not for the passage of Ordinances or Resolutions. Public comments shall generally not be permitted at such meetings, but rather shall be reserved for the City Council meeting immediately following such meetings. The Committee of the Whole meeting shall be treated as a meeting where public comment is not permitted under Section 2.12(ad) of this Code. (13-51)

    CoW meetings are where city staff make their case to council about stuff they want. What they don’t want is for you to rebut their arguments and they’ve gone to some lengths to keep your voice out of these meetings. For years they just outright prohibited your comments. Then about six months ago, they changed the rules to abide by the Open Meetings Act (OMA) but took steps that essentially kept the changes secret.

    I’ve put together a timeline for you. Read the rest of this entry

    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.