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Out Here: Serve as watchdogs, not cheerleaders

The battle lines are being drawn: The Dixon City Council seems comfortable with the commission form of government, but its critics want to change to a manager form.

A mayor-appointed task force is recommending the City Council let voters decide next year on whether to switch to a manager form. All this debate, of course, is in response to the Rita Crundwell scandal.

In the commission form, part-time council members assume executive powers over certain departments, while in a manager form, a professional administrator takes charge of day-to-day operations and the council sets policy. (Under state law, the commission form’s jobs are commissioners of accounts and finances, public health and safety, streets and public improvements, and public property.)

Dixon resident Jordan Bowman has attended meetings of the task force and the council. He said he likes the manager form, but he pointed out a key problem in a recent letter to the editor.

“The Rita Crundwell thefts occurred in large part because too much power and blind trust was put into one person,” Bowman wrote. “In the city manager form of government, one person is granted much power over the city by state statute, and that cannot be changed.”

The commission form of government, which goes back a century, is a creature of the Progressive Era. Aiming to keep out machine politics, the commission is designed to spread out city power among a number of officials, rather than concentrate it in the mayor’s office.

The manager form also resulted from the Progressive movement, letting a full-time professional run the show, rather than leaving it to politicians (or so the reformers envisioned).

In any form, an official can gain too much power. That’s why voters must elect people who take their oversight roles seriously, serving as watchdogs rather than cheerleaders.

Recently, former City Council member Ralph Contreras, the commissioner of streets, told me how city government worked when he served from 1991 to 2011. The unwritten protocol, he said, barred members from interfering in each other’s departments. And Contreras stayed in line.

“I stuck to streets,” he said.

Looking back, Contreras said members should have given more oversight of each other’s departments. For instance, he had wondered why Crundwell took off so much time, but he said he didn’t pursue the issue because that was the domain of Finance Commissioner Roy Bridgeman.

Bridgeman these days isn’t doing interviews, but I’m betting he wished his colleagues had asked more questions about Crundwell.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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