Dixon officials have their say

Commissioners need more training next time around, panel told

Published: Friday, July 5, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

DIXON – Two city commissioners don't think they got the training needed to take over a City Council seat.

Mayor Jim Burke, Commissioners Colleen Brechon, David Blackburn and Jeff Kuhn met Wednesday with the governmental task force, to weigh in on the study of what form of government is best for Dixon.

Commissioner Dennis Considine did not attend.

"How could we possibly keep moving forward without hearing from you?" task force Chairwoman Marilyn Coffey asked the mayor and commissioners.

Dixon business owner and resident Li Arellano suggested the task force consider more the mayor-council form of government, similar to what is used in Rock Falls.

The task force has focused primarily on recommending between the current commission form with an administrator and the city manager form.

City Council members have not attended a meeting since the first one, when Burke and Considine sat in. This was by design, so the study group, which will make its recommendation to the council, remain independent.

Brechon and Kuhn, elected the first Tuesday in April and taking office the first Monday in May, said city commissioners are thrown into the fire with no training.

The Illinois Municipal League provides 4-hour training sessions for newly elected officials, but it doesn't get into "the meat and potatoes" of city government, Kuhn said.

"I would like to see new council members get more training," Brechon said.

"I'd like to see the next group get a better education," Kuhn echoed.

Task force member Tom Shaw, CEO of Shaw Media, the parent company of Sauk Valley Media, said the lack of training makes a case for a professional administrator.

City administrators interviewed by the task force told them training new council members and bringing them up to speed with city business is a big part of their job.

That said, Kuhn said he sees nothing wrong with the commission form.

"It's working," Kuhn said. "People don't see what's up at City Hall. They just read about the big splashes, but they don't see how we've rebuilt our finance department."

Kuhn said he likes how responsive the commission form is to the people. He takes phone calls from residents and can respond to their needs.

There's another side to that argument, that was made by Sterling City Manager Scott Shumard, Shaw noted: Instead of responding to complainers, the council could be responding to a longer-term vision and strategy based on where the city's needs are.

Brechon agreed with Kuhn. She said she did not run only to make policy, she also wants to be involved. An involved council gives people a direct voice in day-to-day operations, because they are elected by the people, she said.

Again, Kuhn said he would like to see the city hire more of a facilitator or coordinator, similar to what City Engineer Shawn Ortgiesen did, rather than an administrator.

Task force member Bill Wadsworth said Rochelle City Manager David Plyman warned them last week that whatever the council does when it hires an administrator: "Do not call the position a facilitator or a coordinator. They are professionals, and want to be called a manager or administrator."

Burke laid out what he sees as the pros and cons of the commission form of government.

He said the form allows the City Council to be more involved, creates a smaller council that facilitates efficiency and gives citizens more direct access to voice their concerns.

The cons are the creation of possible fiefdoms, the possibility of commissioners mircromanaging their departments and the lack of leadership as each commissioner assumes an equal role.

Task force member the Rev. Michael Cole asked commissioners why they think the panel's study was important.

"I thought to have a very qualified, independent and diversified board take a look at forms of government was absolutely critical," Burke said. "No matter what you came away with, whatever it is, you are establishing some credibility with the people as far as an independent board taking a look."

Blackburn said that there's a need for an administrator and a need for better coordination, and that he finds the city manager form "absolutely fantastic."

He did say, however, he is concerned about whether citizens will accept a change. The city manager form was defeated in an early 1990s referendum.

"Dixon is a little conservative," Blackburn said. "The Dixon High School gymnasium is 53 years old, but we still call it the new gym."

Arellano said the task force does not have to focus primarily on the city manager form versus the current commission form.

"There is a compromise," he said in an interview after the meeting.

The city manager form gives the manager his power by state law and council members vote on policy.

The commission form gives commissioners authority over city departments and over making policy, dividing the power between commissioners and the administrator by ordinance.

A mayor-council form, on the other hand, strips commissioners of that day-to-day oversight, but gives them the right to determine the city administrator's power by ordinance.

This form was the recommendation of an advisory committee created in Ottawa more than a decade ago. The task force interviewed the chairman of that committee.

"I grow weary of the city manager form, because the city is subservient to state statute and relinquishes its authority," Arellano said. "I do feel the need to inject more professionalism into our city government."

He concluded: "Like the Rochelle city manager said, ultimately the community gets the government it elects, not hires. I'd like to see an administrator by ordinance to give us the control over how powerful that position can be."

The task force plans to meet with the city's attorney Wednesday to answer any questions it has. Members plan to have their minds made up by August and start drafting their recommendation.

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