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‘Witch hunt’ at City Hall?

Resident: Questioning could stop another Dixon

MOUNT CARROLL – Resident Percy Vesperman says he wants aldermen who question the city’s finances.

At last week’s Mount Carroll City Council meeting, Vesperman told aldermen that the Dixon City Council had no inquiring members. As a result, he said, Dixon suffered.

In Mount Carroll, aldermen Bob Sisler and Doris Bork have questioned discrepancies between bank statements and budget line items. Such inquiries could prevent another Dixon-type situation, Vesperman said.

The questioning, however, angers the council majority. One member laments an influx of Freedom of Information Act requests for city financial documents. And Mayor Carl Bates now bans members from calling the city’s auditing firm without his or the city clerk’s permission.

Last Monday’s council meeting agenda included an item for discussion of letters to the editor written by Bork and Sisler, Bates’ opponent in April’s election.

In one letter, Sisler disputed City Hall’s view that the city got a positive audit. He quoted sections of the audit that indicated problems in the finances.

But Bates took exception to the letter, saying Sisler gave incomplete quotes. He said Sisler didn’t include the auditor’s comments that the city would need to hire additional staff to improve accounting procedures, which wouldn’t be cost-beneficial.

Alderman Mike Risko chimed in.

“They were deceptive statements, and it was wrong,” he said.

Over the past couple of years, Sisler, Bork and former Alderwoman Nina Cooper have pointed to discrepancies in city finances, including in the cemetery fund. They also have noted differences in employees’ hours on written timesheets and electronic timecards.

Last week, Sisler identified a new fund that he said had problems – the school crossing fund. In 2008, the council voted to close the fund and put the remaining money in other accounts.

But Sisler pointed to records showing that the fund had $8,144 for some time last year.

“If the fund was closed, why does it still appear?” he asked. “I find it confusing.”

City Clerk Julie Cuckler, who is facing Cooper in April’s election, said she wasn’t sure why that was the case. The auditors should have adjusted it, she said.

Bates promised to “dig into it and report back.”

Risko, who is facing Vesperman in the election, said he was checking city accounts monthly, reconciling bank statements.

“We are facing a group of people continuously attacking the City Council without a shred of evidence,” he said.

During public input, Cooper said she spent a “large number of hours” looking over city documents and found discrepancies.

“There is a lot of evidence,” she said. “Open your eyes.”

Cuckler, who put her head in her hands for much of the time Cooper spoke, defended her work, saying City Hall has checks and balances.

Bergren said Freedom of Information requests from City Hall critics have overwhelmed the staff.

“It’s turned into a witch hunt,” he said.

At the meeting, the council voted unanimously to issue a request for proposals for a forensic audit, which is more in-depth than a regular one. It’s typically used for an investigation into criminal conduct.

The city’s regular audit costs $18,000. A forensic audit is expected to cost a lot more.

The council majority defended the finances, but some said a forensic audit may put questions to rest.

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