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Ex-official: 'We let people down'

Ralph Contreras
Ralph Contreras

DIXON - Ralph Contreras, a former member of the Dixon City Council, says the city has run smoothly over the years, with the exception of the Rita Crundwell scandal.

He disagrees with arguments that the city should change its commission form of government, in which part-time council members get responsibility over certain departments.

Some residents are pushing for a managerial form, in which a professional manager runs day-to-day operations and the council sets policy. Such ideas, Contreras said, come from a small minority that always attends council meetings to complain.

The debate over the form of government, Contreras said, came up only because of Crundwell, who made off with nearly $54 million in city money over 20 years.

"The city has run smoothly all these years, especially since Jim Burke took over as mayor [in 1999]," said Contreras, citing the riverfront, a new sewer plant and a new police department building as examples of the progress under Burke's reign.

As for Crundwell, Contreras said: "We let the people down. We should have caught it. Everyone trusted her."

Contreras was commissioner of streets and public improvements from 1991 to 2011, when he did not seek re-election. He said he and his colleagues followed protocol by not interfering in each other's departments.

"I stuck to streets," Contreras said in his first interview since the Crundwell scandal surfaced in April 2012.

Contreras, who turned 88 this week, said council members should get into the practice of questioning each other about their areas. That would be a better response to the Crundwell scandal than overhauling the form of government, he said.

Contreras said he "always wondered" why Crundwell, who built an empire in the quarterhorse industry, appeared to be so wealthy. But he said he was told that she made her money selling choice horses.

He also said he was mystified about why Crundwell took so much time off, which she used to attend quarterhorse events. But he said he didn't pursue that issue because Roy Bridgeman was the commissioner of accounts and finances.

Sauk Valley Media interviewed Bridgeman in the hours after the Crundwell scandal became public April 17, 2012.

Before Bridgeman's 24 years on the council, 20 as finance commissioner, he was Crundwell's high school typing teacher. He said Crundwell's arrest shocked him.

"All I know is that the books always came to the penny," he said at the time. "I can't figure out anything."

He has avoided interviews ever since. A few days after the scandal broke, Sauk Valley Media reported that Bridgeman praised Crundwell at his last meeting in 2011, telling her that she was a big asset to the city and looked after every dollar as if it were her own.

Contreras said he hadn't seen Bridgeman much since they left office, but he said he has heard that his former colleague took the scandal "really hard." And the publication of the praise for Crundwell made things worse for Bridgeman.

"He felt bad about that comment," Contreras said.

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