DIXON – The mayor has taken too long, a former mayor said Monday.
After then-City Comptroller Rita Crundwell was charged in connection with what could be the largest municipal fraud in U.S. history, questions were raised over the city’s commission form of government.
Mayor Jim Burke promised to create an advisory task force to investigate the matter.
That was in July.
It has been nearly 3 months since then, and two former city leaders say that’s long enough.
“I really don’t see that as a major job, putting together a commission like that, and I think sufficient time has passed that we should already be discussing what form of government we should have,” former Mayor Jim Dixon said at Monday night’s council meeting.
He was joined by a former two-time city commissioner, Marilyn Coffey.
“If the city would decide to change its form of government, it would make sense to do so well in advance of the next city elections, so I believe that process needs to start now,” Coffey said. “I’m here tonight to remind you of your decision and to ask when you will be following through on this.”
The council is up for re-election in April 2015.
Burke said he is still receiving names of those interested in serving on the seven-member task force. He has 15 applications or recommendations so far, he said.
Considering everything else the council has had on its plate since the April 17 arrest, he said, he did not consider the task force a big priority. He plans to submit a list of names with his recommendations to the council by the end of the year.
“One of the standards I’m going to have is that the people coming onto [the task force] have an open mind,” Burke said. “I don’t want to put people on this who already have an idea of where this should go, and Jim Dixon is a prime example of that. And you can quote me on that.”
Under the commission form of government, each of the four commissioners and the mayor oversee specific departments. For example, the finance commissioner is the quasi-department head of the accounts and finance department.
The issue with that, critics have said, is that the elected officials serve only part time and often are ill-equipped to manage city departments.
Dixon has been a proponent of the managerial form of government, which, for example, the similarly sized city of Sterling uses.
In late 1989, he pushed for the Dixon City Council to put the question on the ballot. The council said no, but he organized a group of residents who got the measure on the ballot anyway.
“Other council members and many people in the community said, as you [Burke] pointed out, you needed to think about the cost, [that it] would be too much,” Dixon said. “At that time, they thought it might be $90,000 a year to have professional management, and that killed us, of course. We lost 3 to 1.
“Of course, when I heard about the problems this year and how much money potentially, allegedly, has been taken away from the city over all this time, I’m thinking $90,000 a year is a lot cheaper than what we had with the commission form.”
Federal prosecutors charged Crundwell with federal wire fraud in connection with what they say is the misappropriation of $53 million since 1990.
Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon, the former mayor’s brother, also has charged Crundwell with 60 counts of felony theft.
Some observers point to the city’s form of government, which Jim Dixon called “antiquated [and] outdated,” as at least partly to blame for the alleged fraud.
“Many of those articles or letters to the editor were highly critical of our commission form and implied that if we had a city manager, perhaps the alleged theft wouldn’t have happened,” Coffey said.
“While I believe it is impossible to know for sure, I argued in my letter that this catastrophe did present an opportunity for the city to engage in some self-examination.”
Also on Monday
DIXON – The city no longer will own the vacant house on West Third Street, the City Council unanimously decided Monday evening.
The $9,000 offered by the sole bidder, S&D Construction of Dixon, isn't likely to cover the costs incurred over the decades-long legal battle with its former owner, but it's probably the best the city can do, Public Property Commissioner Colleen Brechon said.
The other option, going through a real estate agent, would cost the city more than $1,000, she said, so her recommendation to the council was to take the bid.
The council also took care of a number of other items during a busy meeting Monday. Members:
– Awarded this year's street maintenance project to the low bidder.
City officials will discuss adding another block to the 26-block project with the contractor, Northwest Illinois Construction of Rock Falls, because the bid came in under the city engineer's estimate.
The 27th block would be Cooper Street from Sinnissippi Street to Assembly Place, Streets Commissioner Jeff Kuhn said.
– Tabled a variance petition from the Sauk Valley Islamic Center at the request of the center's attorney, Michael Downey.
There is an issue with the location of the proposed expansion in relation to the city's water main, he said.
Some of the neighbors also have voiced concern that the project would make the neighborhood less residential.
– Sent the Dixon Habitat for Humanity's petitions to the city attorney for review. This is tanamount to an approval, Mayor Jim Burke said.
The nonprofit wants to build six homes over the next 6 years on a property between College and Jackson avenues near the railroad tracks.
– Temporarily increased the number of firefighters so that the Dixon Fire Department can hire another while injured firefighter and paramedic Andy Brooks is on the mend.
The number of firefighters would go back down to the current 15 at the next retirement, Public Safety Commissioner Dennis Considine said.