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East Peoria, Mattoon make commission work with administrator

Management association director says form could clash with administrator

Published: Thursday, April 25, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

DIXON – The arrangement can be awkward, but about 20 percent of municipalities with the commission form of government have a city administrator, said Dawn Peters of the Illinois City/County Management Association.

In 3 to 6 months, Dixon plans to be one of them.

The City Council plans to appoint Police Chief Danny Langloss today as a special assistant to the council until a city administrator is hired, Mayor Jim Burke said.

In the commission form of government, commissioners, who work in the city on a part-time basis, are charged in state statutes with overseeing its departments.

In Dixon, Dave Blackburn is head of the finance department, Colleen Brechon is head of public property, Dennis Considine is head of public health and safety, and Jeff Kuhn is head of streets.

A city administrator's job primarily is to oversee the city's departments, too, creating a possible clash, Peters said.

"It's a very awkward arrangement," Peters said. "Under a different form of government, if a city has an administrator, the administrator has control over the department heads, and they report to the administrator. In the commission form, the commissioner has that control.

"You wonder to whom the department head is accountable, the commissioner or administrator? There's such a blurry line there."

By adopting a city administrator position, Peters said Dixon will not be changing its form of government, meaning a referendum is not necessary.

Tom Brimberry is the city administrator of East Peoria, one of 49 municipalities in Illinois with the commission form. He cannot imagine a city working without an administrator in any form.

East Peoria, which has a population of 23,402, has adopted a hybrid form of government, that allows him to oversee the day-to-day operations but gives commissioners the lead in their respective departments, he said.

"There's a lot of things that come up in the day-to-day operations that may be mundane that wouldn't necessitate the attention ... of a non-full-time commissioner," Brimberry said. "My role is to bring professional management to the city, where part-time commissioners wouldn't have the time or the knowledge to devote to the city."

In Dixon, former City Engineer Shawn Ortgiesen, who resigned after it was revealed he used city-issued credit cards for personal use, also held the post of personnel and public works director. Sometimes referred to as a de facto administrator, he oversaw many day-to-day operations in the city's public works departments.

Brimberry, who has worked as an administrator in other forms of government, said the less time commissioners have to be involved with the day-to-day operations or dealing with personnel issues, the more time they can spend setting policy and addressing wider issues within the city.

Still, he says the time commissioners do spend overseeing their department keeps them better connected with citizens and knowledgeable about the inner workings of the city.

Kyle Gill, the interim administrator in Mattoon, another city with the commission form, said the City Council can make the administrator as strong or as weak a position as it wishes.

In Mattoon, which has 18,555 people, the City Council has given its administrator all the powers of a city manager. A referendum attempt to adopt the managerial form of government shaped the council's decision, he said.

"There were two questions on the ballot," said Gill, who has worked as the city's community developer for 18 years. "One was to remove the commission form and another to adopt managerial. Well, people voted to keep the commission form and adopt the managerial, meaning we had to revert back to the commission. So we're doing the best we can until a referendum can be put on the ballot again."

In the managerial form of government, a city manager is given his or her governmental powers by state statute as opposed to the City Council setting those responsibilities.

About 80 percent of cities with the commission form, such as Ottawa, population 18,699, have not adopted an administrator, choosing to leave day-to-day operations in the hands of department heads with the commissioner's oversight.

However, Ottawa's Mayor Bob Eschbach said a public works director position, similar to what Dixon adopted with Ortgiesen, was adopted recently to bring continuity to the city's government.

Langloss said he will reach out to other cities with an administrator to see how they operate. The City Council will vote on an ordinance in the next few months to create a job description for the position.

Langloss said Dixon will be looking for a flexible candidate, in case a referendum is put on the ballot to adopt the managerial form of government. Burke said he wants the administrator to have oversight of finances, as well.

"We want someone who is qualified to handle both positions, a manager or administrator," Langloss said.

As part of his extra duties as assistant to the City Council, Langloss will help commissioners recruit an administrator. He said he has no interest in taking the position himself.

While other cities have made it work, Peters still believes Dixon citizens should look at petitioning for a new form of government.

A governmental task force will meet at City Hall for the first time May 1 to examine Dixon's form of government.

"I truly believe that looking at the form of government is a first step for the city of Dixon," said Peters, who helped Rochelle adopt the managerial form. "Trying to hire an administrator under commission form can be a very difficult position to put an administrator in.

"It will be a tough act to balance."

To attend

The City Council will hold a special meeting at 6:30 tonight at City Hall, 121 W. Second St., to discuss and vote on naming Police Chief Danny Langloss as a special assistant to the city council.

Go to www.discoverdixon.org and click on "Citizens Information Center" or call City Hall, 815-288-1485, for an agenda.

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