Status quo, or not, after scandal?

Commissioners: Things are going well at City Hall

DIXON – In April, the Rita Crundwell scandal went public. Many called for change at City Hall. They decried the city’s commission form of government.

During the summer, Mayor Jim Burke promised to form a task force to look into changing the government structure.

So, how do the city’s commissioners feel?

Three of the four say things are going well, but they’re open to new ideas. Another declined to comment.

Dixon is one of 49 municipalities in Illinois with the commission form of government, which puts part-time commissioners in charge of areas of a municipal government.

Dixon, for instance, has commissioners for accounts and finance, public property, public health and safety, and streets and public improvements.

Opponents of this form of government say Dixon, with a population of 15,733, is too big to have part-timers running the city.

Most of the other towns with a commission form, including Oregon and Tampico, are far smaller than Dixon.

Only six of the cities are larger than Dixon – Zion, East Peoria, Marion, Mattoon, Pekin and Ottawa. Chicago Heights, population 31,373, gave up on the commission form years ago.

‘Things are operating very well’

State law allows five forms of government: aldermanic, commission, managerial, strong mayor, and trustee. Sterling has a managerial form of government.

Sterling’s manager runs the day-to-day operations of government, while the City Council has the legislative function of setting policy.

Dixon, on the other hand, has no full-time official to oversee the entire government, although some consider Shawn Ortgiesen, the public works director and city engineer, to be a de facto city manager.

Dixon’s former comptroller, Rita Crundwell, had no full-time supervisor. Some say that’s why she could get away with corruption. The federal government says she misappropriated $53 million in city funds over more than two decades.

Authorities arrested her in April. She has yet to be tried.

Dennis Considine, commissioner of public health and safety, said criticism of Dixon’s form of government is “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

“I certainly believe in the form of government we have,” said Considine, who was elected in 2011. “It works as well as any form of government. I’m positive about it.”

As for Crundwell, he said, “it wouldn’t have mattered what form of government we had.”

At the same time, he supports forming a task force, saying he is on a mission to study other forms.

Jeff Kuhn, commissioner of streets and public improvements, taught government in Dixon schools before he retired. He said he favors the task force, promising he would have no “preconceived notions.”

“I have some trouble with people believing that if we had a city manager, none of this would have happened,” said Kuhn, also elected last year. “It’s not the form of government that caused this to happen; it was the person.”

He said he liked that Dixon has three new commissioners.

“We had some in the past for a considerable amount of time. You need new blood,” Kuhn said. “New things are happening. I like the enthusiasm we’re bringing to the job. That was lacking. Complacency was setting in.”

Another new member, Colleen Brechon, commissioner of public property, said she likes the way things are going.

“The city of Dixon has the best of all worlds,” she said. “The council has very dedicated members. Shawn Ortgiesen is the city engineer, involved in all aspects of city business. He is very competent. I am very confident working with him and the city attorney.”

She also praised the City Council’s hiring of Paula Meyer, who is filling the new position of finance director.

“Things are operating very well,” she said. “I feel very confident in the people I’m working with. Not to say I wouldn’t be curious about what else we could come up with.”

David Blackburn, who has served on the City Council for more than 20 years, issued an emailed statement, saying he wouldn’t comment “at this time” on Dixon’s form of government.

Blackburn, the commissioner of finance and accounts, said he is focused on working with the new finance director and Wipfli, the city’s new auditing firm.

“I am certain the mayor will have a number of good people [for the task force] who he will propose to the council in the near future,” Blackburn said.

Burke plans to name the task force’s members in December, saying he seeks people with open minds. He wants the commission form of government to be among those considered.

The panel should interview officials from other towns, he said.

City needs ‘more professional hand’

James Dixon, mayor from 1983 to 1991, has long pushed to do away with the commission form of government. In 1990, he and others put a referendum on the ballot to adopt the city manager form of government. Only 25 percent of voters supported it.

In May, he wrote a letter to the editor asking whether others still had interest in reviving that effort. A couple of weeks later, though, he said he would hold off to see what the task force came up with.

The commission form, he said, would be best for a town far smaller than Dixon.

“I think they [city officials] are interested in looking for a better way to govern their community,” he said. “I hope that means they’ll be looking favorably on the managerial form.”

Marilyn Coffey, a commissioner from 1988 to 1991, supported the referendum.

“I saw how difficult it was to be thrown into a position where you are expected to be an executive,” she said. “You have executive and legislative responsibilities. A city of this size, especially today, needs a more professional hand.”

She said she was frustrated that the mayor didn’t make a priority of studying different forms of government.

Sterling City Manager Scott Shumard is a fan of managerial government. Having such a form, he said, allows more people to participate on the City Council.

“You don’t have to be retired or self-employed to make policy decisions for the city,” he said in emailed comments. “You don’t have to be an expert in local government or management to make a difference right away.”

City managers have access to a network for training, provide continuity, and serve as a central point for communication.

“We’ve been fortunate to have a history of terrific professionals in the manager’s chair,” Shumard said, “and just as fortunate to have cooperative mayors and councils working in conjunction with and understanding the separate roles of each.”