The Campaign Dirty Tricks are Actually Clueless

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Our city is suffering, and at least one of the mayoral campaigns is distracting us from beating incumbents to fix it. This could have dire consequences for turnout in a campaign season that, like this one, has not generated a whole lot of excitement.

I get it. It can be difficult to face, much less articulate, the nasty truth of the matter, which is that on a good day city hall is dysfunctional, and on a bad one it’s a sociopathic looting machine.

But everyone should still try, and on that count let’s put this baby to bed. Continue reading The Campaign Dirty Tricks are Actually Clueless

Contributions to Mayor Rey’s Campaign

A few weeks ago I argued that City of DeKalb will continue to fail at solving its problems until we elect leaders who understand and value public ethics.

The apparent intertwining of city business with Mayor Rey’s campaign business reinforces my position.

January 9: DeKalb city council approves the hiring of a consultant to help with asset management of city streets and related infrastructure.

February 6: Rey’s campaign committee files a Statement of Organization with the Illinois State Board of Elections. It indicates funds available in the amount of $1,211.80. Reported on the same date is Rey’s contribution of $5,000 to his campaign.

February 15: Rey’s campaign committee reports that John Pappas has contributed $1,000 to Rey’s campaign.

February 26: In response to a question from the audience, Rey announces at a candidates’ forum that his campaign has raised about $10,000 so far.

February 27: Rey’s committee reports that International Union Of Operating Engineers Local 150 has contributed $1,000 to Rey’s campaign. Many operating engineers build roads.

February 27: DeKalb city council approves rezoning for the Cornerstone development at First and Lincoln. The principal developer is John Pappas. The deal will include $3 million in public money for the project.

March 3: Rey’s committee reports that Oakland & Sycamore Road Development LLC has contributed $2,500 to Rey’s campaign. John Pappas is named as agent and manager.

March 15: Daily Chronicle interviews City of DeKalb public works director Tim Holdeman, who describes the department’s development of a pavement management program that may recommend the city spend $5-$9 million per year on its streets.

I’m sure none of this is illegal in Illinois, but it smells of pay-to-play, a game a lot of us don’t like.

This Election, Let’s Discuss Remedial Action for DeKalb

The Chronicle has published a letter to the editor that caught my eye. It’s about local candidates and their positions on the issues.

The words that they use may change, but the rhetoric is the same.

The writer goes on to list the same old, same old: DeKalb-NIU relations, easing of the tax burden, and jobs/business climate. He wants to hear specific ideas.

While I largely agree that some city candidates are hard to pin down, I believe the real issues in DeKalb are more fundamental, and require remediation before we can progress.

Here’s an example from Sunday. I attended the DARA forum for DeKalb mayoral candidates. One of the candidates took the position, in what struck me as a somewhat scolding tone, that residents should not share grievances unless they have the solutions already worked out. Apparently this person has already adopted city hall culture where citizens are separated into friends who have their attention, and whiners who don’t. Continue reading This Election, Let’s Discuss Remedial Action for DeKalb

Part 2 of Account 8306, Special Events

It has come to my attention that clarification is needed on the post about the General Fund “special events” account named 8306.

If you contact City of DeKalb and they tell you that 8306 is for events such as helping with the expenses of July 4th festivities at Hopkins Park, that is 100% correct.

However, it is also correct to say that funds coded to expense account 8306 pay for employee events (parties and picnics) and special compensation (gift cards). The February 2016 expenditures report(p. 9), for example, included payouts for an employee potluck and a spree on gift cards for employees that’s becoming infamous. Continue reading Part 2 of Account 8306, Special Events

Account 8306, Special Events

City of DeKalb has an account in its General Fund called “Special Events,” 8306 in the budget. I always thought special events were public events, such as the open house that was held for visitors to tour the new police station. Then I came across an expenditure of $5,400 for Target gift cards for employees that was coded to this expense account, which prompted me to look more closely. It appears to be an account that pays for employee parties and gifts.

Here are the amounts budgeted over the past few years from this account:

2012: $ 7,000
2013: $12,000
2014: $15,000
2015: $19,750
2016: $22,850

Even if all of the expenses are legit — and I’m not sure they are — the more-than-tripling of what’s budgeted into this account needs to be explained. I also note that the extravagance in this area comes on top of similarly large increases we’ve observed for membership dues/subscriptions and professional development expenses over the past 2-3 years.

But back to the question of legitimacy. Let’s consult the Illinois Constitution.

ARTICLE VIII

FINANCE

SECTION 1. GENERAL PROVISIONS
(a) Public funds, property or credit shall be used only for public purposes.

Are private parties and gifts for city employees a public purpose? I think not.

City of DeKalb and Its Incompatible Offices

DeKalb isn’t particularly good at observing boundaries. One example is that DeKalb’s contracted attorney is allowed to sit with the city council during planning sessions as an assistant in setting strategic priorities. In other words, a contractor gets to step out of his assigned role to provide unfettered input into public policy that the public itself never gets to enjoy.

But while the attorney’s extra privileges are plenty objectionable from an ethics standpoint, the most egregious errors in failing to maintain separation of roles have arguably come about in DeKalb’s dealings with the city clerk’s office beginning in 2012, when clerk Steve Kapitan was forced to resign. Here’s what city staff said about it at the time (my emphases):

[City manager Mark] Biernacki explained that because of Kapitan’s unique situation as both an elected official and city employee, certain confidentiality rights are in place.

The city, as the former employer of Mr. Kapitan, has certain obligations to keep his personal records confidential,” said city attorney Dean Frieders…

City of DeKalb again combined the roles of city employee and city clerk when Diane Wright was appointed in Kapitan’s place later that year, yet also kept her administrative job with the city (again, my emphasis):

With recent changes in City Hall staffing, a proposal has been developed to provide more efficient use of City personnel to perform administrative functions for the City, by utilizing the currently serving Acting City Clerk in a dual role as City Clerk and Executive Secretary.

These moves are problematic specifically because citizens of DeKalb have voted twice in the past 10 years to retain their municipal clerk as an elected position. While certainly “unique” and possibly even “efficient,” these elected official-city employee hybrids are not allowed under Illinois law. Elected officers are intended to serve only one master, and that’s the electorate. Continue reading City of DeKalb and Its Incompatible Offices

Schrader: Loss of KishHealth Holdings, a Community-Owned Asset

**Update: More about this now posted at Barry’s Blog.**

KishHealth System officials answered questions from the public following a presentation before the DeKalb County Board last night. While the Daily Chronicle chose not to address an exchange regarding who owns the real estate where Kishwaukee Hospital operates (as well as other KishHealth System holdings acquired by Northwestern Medicine), journalist-cum-blogger Barry Schrader did. Here’s an excerpt from an emailed statement (my emphasis added): Continue reading Schrader: Loss of KishHealth Holdings, a Community-Owned Asset

Attacks on Citizens Who Speak Up: Another Reason for an Ethics Commission

In a recent post, CityEthics’ Robert Wechsler tackles the issue of public officials’ attacking citizens who question their ethics (my emphasis).

…[W]hen they engage in ethical misconduct, when they misuse their office or deal irresponsibly with their conflicts of interest, then they are acting not in their own right, but as government officials. And as government officials, they have an obligation not to attack those who make accusations against them. This is a misuse of office for one’s own benefit that, in most cases, is worse than the ethical misconduct they have been accused of. Government officials can deny that they engaged in this misconduct (if indeed they didn’t) and they have a right to defend themselves in an ethics proceeding, but that is all.

And, ahem, about the hired attack dogs:

And their agents have no more right than this. Officials should make this clear to their attorney (government attorneys should already understand their own fiduciary obligations) and publicly counter any inappropriate statement, as well as apologizing to anyone an attorney has attacked on their behalf.

DeKalb citizens who speak up are no strangers to bad treatment from this city regime as well as the one it replaced. Indeed, during the last council meeting, Alderman Noreiko used the time usually devoted to ward reports to attack citizens who had spoken during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Wechsler says that ethics commissions should intervene when public officials or their attorneys go on the attack. DeKalb, of course, doesn’t have one yet but this is another good reason why we should.

Related:

Illinois’ Model Ethics Ordinance & City of DeKalb

Public Participation Project: Your State’s Free Speech Protection

Tim Struthers Gave DeKalb’s Mayor Talking Points When the College Town Partners Story Broke

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.

Illinois’ Model Ethics Ordinance & City of DeKalb

…the Illinois model ordinance [for adoption by local units of government] is not even minimal. It only deals with political activities and gifts. There is nothing about conflicts; the word doesn’t even appear. To call it an ethics ordinance is like calling a burglary law a criminal code.
~ Robert Wechsler, CityEthics.org

Minimal as it is, City of DeKalb still can’t get it right. Remember when DeKalb Mayor Rey was called out for using his city email account for political activities? He was “admonished” by the city manager, who is the designated ethics advisor for the city. Even beyond the fact that city council members are the collective boss of city staff and shouldn’t be “admonished” by any city employee, that’s not how a complaint is supposed to be handled. Here’s what the Office of the Attorney General has to say:

Because it is vital that officers and employees understand the ethics laws, Article 15 of the Model Ordinance provides for the designation of an Ethics Advisor to whom officers and employees can address questions or concerns regarding compliance with its provisions, as well as other ethics matters, such as filing Statements of Economic Interest, where required.

Get it? Advisor. Handles questions and concerns, not complaints. Complaints are supposed to go to an ethics commission if the local unit has adopted this part of the model ordinance, and if the local government has not adopted a commission (as DeKalb has not), complaints are supposed to go “to an attorney representing the entity for review and prosecution.”

Did the city attorney not know this, or was he counting on no one’s looking it up?

Obviously, the city has not yet adopted enough of the state’s model ordinance language to address its responsibility to penalize ethics scofflaws like Mayor Rey. Considering that local units of government, home rule or not, are required to adopt regulations that are “no less restrictive” than those contained in the Ethics Act, and “admonishment” is lesser than prosecution, DeKalb should correct its ethics ordinance right away.

The AG’s model ordinance is here. It is 11 pages long.

DeKalb’s ethics ordinance is here. It is two pages long.