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No ‘perfect form of government’?

Ottawa group looked at changing government, never followed through

DIXON – About a decade ago, an advisory committee in Ottawa wanted to do away with the commission form of government and hire an administrator.

Those recommendations, however, never were put into action.

Now, a similar committee in Dixon is asking the same kinds of questions about its commission form of government as that group in Ottawa did, and a recommendation to the City Council is anticipated.

Dixon’s governmental task force met for the first time May 1 and will meet again Wednesday, with no set deadline to make a recommendation.

Mayor Jim Burke created the task force of seven members to evaluate the commission form after Rita Crundwell stole nearly $54 million of city funds, and many residents blamed the local government structure.

In Ottawa, the county seat of LaSalle County with a population of 18,699, Mayor Robert Eschbach called an advisory committee together in 2001 after several candidates in the municipal election questioned the commission form and pushed for a city manager.

Ottawa’s committee, which met on a quarterly basis for about 21 months, recommended the immediate hiring of an administrator and placing a referendum on the 2002 ballot that could change city government to a mayor-council form. A referendum never made it to the ballot.

In the Ottawa committee’s report, it wrote: “We are making these recommendations, because we believe they will increase the overall professionalism and efficiency in the management of the city. Also, with the increasing business, legal and economic complexities that are present in today’s society, the practical need for more professional management exists.

Document: City of Ottawa - Form of Government Committee Report to Council

“It is important to have a person who is professionally trained to deal with the problems which are unique to municipal governments. Also, a city administrator can implement more efficient operating policies, reduce professional consulting fees, and can prevent unnecessary legal entanglements.”

As to why the advisory committee’s recommendations were ignored, Eschbach said the majority of the City Council was not inclined to change.

“During that period, that sentiment was ‘none of these forms are perfect,’ ‘it’s more important who you elect,’ as examples,” Eschbach said, admitting he does not believe there is a perfect form of government out there.

At its first meeting, the Rev. Michael Cole, a member of Dixon’s governmental task force, asked whether there were any guarantees the City Council would act on its recommendations.

Dixon’s attorney Robert Lesage answered that the governmental task force’s recommendation is not binding, but he and the mayor acknowledged, after all the events that had transpired in Dixon, the recommendation will carry a great deal of influence.

“The public is watching,” Lesage said in response.

The mayor-council form, which was recommended in Ottawa, is the default form in Illinois. It features a weak mayor and a strong city council that is void of administrative duties. Rock Falls is an example of mayor-council government.

The Ottawa committee said it believed the salary for an administrator, which it recommended between $60,000 and $80,000, may be recouped through the increased efficiency and savings by having all purchasing go through a single source.

The Dixon City Council plans to hire an administrator within 3 to 6 months. The plan calls for Police Chief Danny Langloss, who was named as special assistant to the City Council, to lead the search and recommend a candidate who can serve the city under any form of government.

Thomas Ganiere, who was chairman of the the Ottawa advisory committee, said that group found the commission form to be out-of-date and out-of-touch with current government responsibilities.

“By decreasing the council members’ responsibility to run the city, it is possible additional candidates who do not have the time to serve under the present commission form of government may now become active in local government,” the report said in favor of the change.

The committee liked the mayor-council form, because it separates power between the legislative and executive branches, which it said would lead to more independence, debate, and consensus building.

In the commission form, commissioners hold both legislative and executive powers, serving as the heads of city departments and often tasked with overseeing day-to-day operations.

The report argued that elected officials might be poor administrators, referring to them as “amateurs.” It said they could spend too much time on day-to-day operations and neglect policymaking to work primarily on their departments, creating fiefdoms among city departments.

Ganiere said the group dismissed the city manager form of government, despite debate for that form, because members felt it gave too much power to one individual.

The city manager form, which is used in Sterling, features a manager as the executive branch of government with powers given to him by state law.

“The biggest reason we didn’t recommend it is that it’s too hard to get rid of if it doesn’t work out right,” Ganiere said. “When you’re making a city administrator position, you have to be careful you don’t give the city administrator too much power, because it can become a de facto city manager form of government.”

Also, the report worried that city council members might leave too much decision-making to the city manager, or the city manager might cost too much.

Burke said a referendum to adopt a city manager form of government failed in Dixon in 1990. The discussion came up again at times but was always met with opposition, he said.

An economic development committee in 2005 again explored the idea of hiring an administrator versus adopting the city manager form, and the end result was hiring former Public Works Director and City Engineer Shawn Ortgiesen, Burke said.

Ganiere said he would advise Dixon to hire a city administrator, because the talent and knowledge of elected officials can be a crapshoot.

“The administrator is the way to go,” he said. “Then you have someone who is professional and has the background, not necessarily someone who won a popularity contest.

“And don’t get me wrong; [Eschbach] has done a great job for our city, and we have a lot of confidence in him. But that doesn’t mean the next guy has the knowledge to do it.”

Task force to meet

Dixon's governmental task force meets at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Public Health and Safety building, 220 S. Hennepin Ave.

Guest speaker will be former Rock Island City Manager John Phillips, who is active with the Illinois City/County Management Association.

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