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Out Here: Open the books

Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, April 27, 2013 11:09 a.m. CDT

Dixon’s latest scandal is proving again that openness could be a great disinfectant.

Last week, City Engineer Shawn Ortgiesen, often called the “de facto” city manager, resigned after he apparently put $13,521 of personal expenses on his city-issued credit card. He paid back nearly $5,000 of that money before the expenditures became public, forking over the rest with his resignation.

Now, we’re finding out that Mayor Jim Burke and Commissioners Dennis Considine and David Blackburn signed off on credit card statements that included notations from Ortgiesen that some expenses would be reimbursed to the city.

Burke has acknowledged that he signed the statements, and Considine, to his credit, admitted he made an error. Unfortunately, Blackburn, as he has since Rita Crundwell’s arrest last year, remains in the bunker, declining to comment.

So what should the city do to prevent such misspending?

Three words: Open the books.

Of course, people could have gone to City Hall to examine the records. But that’s inefficient, especially when we have this thing called the Internet.

For the last few years, the Illinois Policy Institute, the Chicago-based think tank, has recommended that cities, counties and other government agencies put a variety of financial records online. Those documents include credit card expenditures going back 5 years.

While the city of Dixon followed many of the Institute’s recommendations in the wake of the Rita Crundwell scandal, others it hasn’t, including posting of credit card expenditures.

With the records online, the city could enlist the public in the effort to keep spending above-board.

Credit card bills are often interesting for taxpayers. A few years ago, when I was working for another newspaper, we asked to see a community college’s public records. Among the items on the bills were satellite radio and top-of-the-line speakers for the college president’s car.

That’s not exactly information the president wanted to get out. He probably wouldn’t have spent public money on those luxuries had he known we would publicize them.

At that college, we also asked to see travel and dining expenditures. We found the president and the board of trustees liked to travel a lot, especially out of state.

One of the frustrating things was that we got itemized receipts for small expenditures such as a trip to McDonald’s but not the big-ticket meals. When the president and a few other college officials went to a Morton’s steakhouse in Seattle, they spent $89 a person. Was any of that for liquor? We couldn’t find out. The college didn’t provide itemized receipts.

In Dixon, Ortgiesen’s personal expenditures clearly violated the public trust, as even he admitted in a letter to the city.

But he wasn’t the only one with a city-issued credit card. Do other bills include expenditures deemed perfectly acceptable by the City Council but are questionable in the eyes of taxpayers?

We’ll see.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley.com or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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