DIXON – Shortly after the 2011 city election, newly elected officials had some business to take care of.
As had been tradition.
But, apparently, against the law.
In Dixon, which has a commission form of government, each council member gets administrative duties to oversee an area of government. Under state law, those jobs are commissioners of accounts and finances, public health and safety, streets and public improvements, and public property.
In 2011, three of the four council members were new – Colleen Brechon, Dennis Considine and Jeff Kuhn. The fourth was 20-year veteran David Blackburn.
After the election, they, along with Mayor Jim Burke, met in the council’s chambers. They didn’t sit at the dais, but at a table below.
“We talked about our interests,” Brechon said in a recent interview. “My preference [for an assignment] was public property.”
She said both Blackburn and Kuhn wanted finance.
“We sort of worked it out,” Brechon said. “I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t come to a final decision, but we did.”
Brechon got her wish, while Blackburn took finance and Kuhn got streets. Considine was put in charge of public safety.
Avoiding ‘a contentious issue’
Burke, who has been mayor since 1999, said newly elected council members typically meet before their first open meeting to divvy up responsibilities.
“They get together and organize themselves,” he said.
What if they don’t agree on who gets which job?
“I guess they would do it by majority vote at their first public meeting,” he said. “We’ve had it where two people want the same post. They talk it out without it getting to be a contentious issue.”
Burke said the process is “spelled out in state statute.”
He’s right that state law governs the process. But Dixon appears to violate it.
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According to the statute, the council is required to designate by majority vote the commissioner for each area of government at its first regular meeting after the election.
But that wasn’t done in Dixon. A review of the minutes for the new council’s first meeting on May 2, 2011, showed no votes on members’ jobs. No announcements were made, either. Instead, the arrangement seemed assumed.
During the meeting, Kuhn said city streets, his area of responsibility, needed to be a priority. Blackburn, for his part, informed his colleagues about the date of the next budget session.
When asked about this arrangement recently, Considine declined to comment and hung up the telephone. Blackburn, who didn’t return a message, has said before that he won’t comment on any city matters outside of council meetings, a policy he started in the wake of the Rita Crundwell scandal.
Kuhn said he believed the newly elected council members met twice privately before their first official meeting. They reached a consensus, he said.
In 1991, council members Blackburn, Roy Bridgeman and Ralph Contreras were among those at the private meeting.
In an interview this week, Contreras said they met outside a regular meeting and divvied out the posts. Bridgeman and Blackburn both wanted to be commissioner of accounts and finances, a position that traditionally goes to the highest vote-getter, Contreras said.
Blackburn, who works in finance for the Dixon school district, had received the most votes and felt he was qualified to be commissioner of finances, Contreras said. Bridgeman already had served on the council for 4 years. The two decided to let Bridgeman get his wish. Blackburn took public safety.
“I’m not sure why they did that,” Contreras said.
‘We vote on it at an open meeting’
Oregon also has the commission form of government, but appears to follow the law.
Mayor Tom Stone, in his third term, said he calls council members individually after the election and figures out their interests.
“Normally, we have a fairly good idea from a person’s background about which department the person should be in charge of,” the mayor said. “We vote on it at an open meeting. People can make comment on it at the meeting.”
He said he didn’t understand why a governing body would make such decisions in private. “You could have a lawsuit,” he said.
Oregon City Clerk Charlene Ruthe said the council never has had an issue in which two people insisted on having the same department.
Dixon City Attorney Bob Branson, who has represented the city for all but 2 years since 1975, didn’t return two messages for comment.
An Open Meetings Act violation?
Dixon’s process in selecting commissioners may also violate the state Open Meetings Act, although three of the council members had yet to take office.
Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, referred questions about the issue to the attorney general’s public access counselor’s office, which rules on such matters.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Hartman said the key test is whether a majority of a quorum – the minimum number of members required for a meeting – hold an unannounced meeting to discuss public business. If the majority does, he said, it violates the Open Meetings Act.
In the 2011 case, three of the four had yet to take office. Asked whether the Open Meetings Act would apply to them, Hartman said he didn’t know. He said a citizen could have to file a formal request for an attorney general’s opinion, but it would have to be submitted within 60 days of the alleged violation.
Since the Crundwell scandal, the commission form of government has been under scrutiny. Critics say a professional manager, rather than part-time commissioners, should run city government. They say the current form allowed Crundwell, the former comptroller, to steal nearly $54 million from city coffers over two decades.
A task force has recommended a managerial form of government.