Transparency Growing Pains In DeKalb, Illinois
I’m happy to have Lynn Fazekas from Illinois’ City Barbs guest blog today. City Barbs is a hyper local blog that covers issues that affect DeKalb, Illinois. The story of DeKalb struggle for transparency is not exclusive to DeKalb but is happening in small towns across the country. The lack of publicly available information prohibits people from actually being able to hold elected officials accountable and lets corruption reign free.
By Lynn Fazekas City Barbs
Events following Victor Wogen’s controversial election to the DeKalb (Illinois) City Council prompted a citizens’ group to push for online access to more types of public information.
When Wogen was elected DeKalb’s Third Warders and others, including myself, wrote letters to the editor to call for the alderman-elect (Wogen) not to be seated in May. Citizens came to City Council meetings, some wearing t-shirts and buttons with “Wogen Resign” and “The Barbed Liar” on them (barbed wire was invented in DeKalb) to demand his resignation and to ask other Council members to denounce his behavior. Of course we blogged as well. Nothing much came of these activities but at least we’d officially registered our displeasure — or so we thought at first. Upon reading Council meeting minutes, we realized the City Clerk* had “sanitized” some of the citizens’ statements during these meetings. Comments in support of the new alderman were duly recorded, but remarks unflattering to him were summarized vaguely; e.g., “So-and-so commented on the Third Ward election.” Thus began another round of letters to the editor, neighborhood meetings, appointments with the mayor and clerk, and the birth of the Wogen Watch blog. By mid-summer the focus was more on how to combat the bias in meeting minutes than on the Wogen himself.
Expanded public access to records besides the meeting minutes seemed reasonable to request. In August nine of us – unnamed then but now known as DeKalb Citizens for Transparency – sent a letter asking for certain documents to be placed online on a regular basis. The request was well-received by the Council; promises were made and a deadline set for the changes.
On a personal note, I remember feeling relief that we could channel our energies into a positive, productive direction.
Two years later, the improved access helped lead to the discovery that Alderman Wogen has been awarded no-bid contracts under the radar during his term of office.
None of the public access improvements were more important than the online posting of the “agenda packet,” the collections of documents such as memos, preliminary drawings, surveys, etc., which accompany agendas and help City Council members, media, and other interested persons prepare for meetings. The agenda packet also includes the city’s check register once per month. It was the tracking of expenditures made possible by inclusion of the check register, along with the Illinois Secretary of State’s Corporate/LLC online database, which confirmed Victor Wogen’s ownership of Masonry Works, LLC and his additional city income of nearly $53,000 in 2008 for post-demolition repair work in downtown DeKalb.
Access to state records have also led to the discoveries that Wogen did not pay prevailing wages for the downtown jobs, that he is being pursued for unpaid payroll taxes, and that he owes the Illinois Tollway thousands in unpaid tolls and fines.
The Stakes are High
Victor Wogen resigned late last year and, without a doubt, the departure is satisfying to many. It would be a huge mistake, however, to allow Council merely to scapegoat the Third Ward alderman without acknowledging and challenging the individuals and the system that enabled his activities. In the near-term, small-picture sense, we must question the competence of our legal counsel and the ethics of our top administrators and elected officials. Longer term, it’s about replacing cronyism and a culture that is always looking for the “work around” (aka loophole) with a higher degree of professionalism.
We do not have unlimited time. The City of DeKalb is facing financial challenges as never before, not all of which can be laid at the door of the poor economy. For example, administrations have been operating for years without a formal debt policy or catastrophic liability insurance, and have built up an unfunded liability of about $30 million for a post-employment health insurance benefit that, for most of its recipients, is neither a state-mandated nor contractual obligation. Even where the larger economy is demonstrably the culprit, it is clear the city is, and has been, failing to adapt to the new reality. We anticipate a revenue shortfall approaching $3 million (in a General Fund operating budget of $30 million) by the end of the fiscal year, but there’s no plan for cutting expenditures – and the shortfall was projected last month, before we found out our largest employer, Northern Illinois University, is suddenly having a difficult time meeting its payroll. Taxes and fees have already been raised at least a half-dozen different ways in the past 18 months and a property tax hike was just passed even though the problem of general affordability, a longstanding issue in the community, is becoming acute. When cuts do occur, it’s generally public safety services that suffer, yet the city continues to engage in land acquisition and a $12 million effort to beautify the downtown.
DeKalb may be able maintain both solvency and a basic level of services if budgeted expenditures are drastically reprioritized. Up to this point, however, a complacent City Council’s path of least resistance has been to go along with staff recommendations that serve the interests of an entrenched bureaucracy and a relatively small group of business people who are looking to remake DeKalb to resemble more prosperous Chicago suburbs to the east.
Our challenge in the simplest terms, then, has been to create a new path of least resistance – one that leads to Council’s acting in the best interests of the wider constituency.
Role of the Blogs
I run a hyper-local blog and so do a couple other members of DeKalb Citizens for Transparency. Though able only to speak for myself, I believe we’d all agree that the blogs are no substitute for the face-to-face interactions that comprise acts of civic duty, activism or journalism. That said, they do aid, supplement, and add a dimension of empowerment to these activities that makes me optimistic about the future of our democracy. Nowadays a regular Joe or Josephine can run downtown to city hall with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and scoop the local dead tree publication a few days later, or present a public argument or analysis without having to wait and see if the gatekeepers will print his/her letter to the editor, or find like-minded people on the other side of town.
The growth of blogging has become uncomfortable enough for the status quo that attempts have been made to control the conversations there. Local government officials refer to “the blogs” derisively. Known bloggers are sometimes invited out for a beer and attempted persuasion to “be more positive.” Members of a city commission have even discussed how they might pressure a local newspaper to censor its online comments to block bloggers’ “disproportionate” amount of influence over the City Council and perceived negative impacts to the city’s image.
Some of us see these actions as symptoms of the growing pains of systematic transparency. Blogging has turned default secrecy on its head and the reaction is strong, but in the long term we believe behavior will change.
We could see that the Wogen story deserved as large an audience as we could find for it, and were quite fortunate that the student-run newspaper at Northern Illinois University, Northern Star, was willing to delve into the Wogen arrangement or it might very well never have gotten beyond the relatively small readership of the local blogs. In fact, the sequence of events suggests the very act of the Star’s submitting Freedom of Information Act requests led to a decision by city officials to try to get ahead of the story with a press release, which resulted in reaching the widest local audience possible.
The task since then has been to combat the natural tendency of city government to minimize the legal and ethical issues raised by the behavior of those who enabled Wogen. Continuing coverage by local traditional media has helped keep up the pressure but tends to be focused on Wogen, a tempting target not only because of the no-bid contracts but also more recently for poor attendance at meetings and for having moved out of his ward following domestic battery charges last summer. The Citizens for Transparency countered with two rallies last month to help redirect the message to a wider call for reform of city government, and we’ve spoken to these issues at Council meetings. Additionally, we individually contact the aldermen and mayor on a regular basis to comment on proceedings.
December 14 – the same day Wogen resigned – the DeKalb City Council passed an ordinance that requires Council approval of expenditures over $1500 to city employees and elected officials.
We harbor no illusion that we’ve attained the goal. For one thing, the ordinance is flawed, perhaps fatally so because at least one provision flies in the face of state statutes that limit the percentage of ownership interest. There is also the matter of the Wogen enablers’ retaining employment with the city. Until these folks are replaced, there will be a lingering suspicion that the brazen Mr. Wogen represents the tip of a slimy iceberg. This is reason enough to keep calling for investigations as well as to press Council to continue to tinker with the system that concerns ethics and related legislation.
There’s no endpoint to civic duty.
Still, it’s safe to say a few of us are savoring the moment here in DeKalb, Illinois.