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Local Editorials

Decide now to have Dixon referendum

Postponing a decision on the recommendation of a task force to let Dixon voters decide on government reform would not benefit the community. Let's end the uncertainty and proceed with a question on the 2014 ballot.

Although some people might try to deny it, there is a palpable sense of skepticism about, and frustration with, city government in Dixon in the aftermath of the Rita Crundwell scandal.

More than a year after the crime was unveiled, and months after Crundwell was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison, many citizens of Dixon still are understandably angry – about the missing $54 million, about how it could have occurred, and about who is really responsible for allowing such a thing to happen. They remain unconvinced by the answers so far.

The urging by some officials for the city to “move on” is not, we believe, a vain attempt to get people to forget that a city comptroller stole those millions over two decades without being detected. Their intent seems to be on focusing today on matters that are reasonably within their control.

Mayor Jim Burke, in response to our editorial that suggested the city’s commission form of government is broken, recently used space on this page to list the many good things that have happened in Dixon in the past few years. We don’t dispute that the city has much to be proud of. The mayor’s list was not evidence, however, that city achievements are the result of a commission style of government – only that such a government model doesn’t impede all progress.

One topic in the ongoing community discussion about responsibility and accountability in the Crundwell caper has been the commission-led government. We understand that some commissioners have been offended by our occasional reference to their roles as “part-time amateurs” in the administration and supervision of city operations.

Our description of their status as city commissioners was not intended as a personal criticism to question their desire and commitment to serve Dixon to the best of their abilities. Rather, it was more of an observation – an explanation, even – of how the informality of small-town governing by part-time commissioners makes possible the malfeasance and misfeasance that Dixon has experienced in the scandals, large and small, of recent years.

That is why we challenge any notion that there is nothing that can be done now about the Crundwell scandal. Giving citizens a role in reforming their local government would show that the city truly seeks to deal with the “good ol’ boy” politics that many people blame for the crime.

In fact, Mayor Burke appointed a task force to examine various forms of local government and to make a recommendation on how Dixon should move forward. Although the task force was slow to engage, we believe it has done a commendable job in examining the city’s options, researching the pros and cons, and obtaining community input in the process.

This simple finding of the task force will be presented soon to the city council: Let the voters of Dixon decide whether to adopt a manager style of government as defined by state law, or continue the commission form with the assistance of a professional administrator, which is the direction the council is now moving. The task force suggested Dixon could benefit from either form.

The council’s decision should be easy: Adopt the recommendation and approve a 2014 referendum. Now.

But the response of some council members has been curiously cautious. They want to review the task force’s formal recommendation. They want to survey citizens about a ballot question. The official mood seemed to have been summed up in a statement by Mayor Burke.

“I want to see how the city administrator works out,” he said. “If we didn’t have plans to hire an administrator [this fall], I’d say this thing would be a slam dunk, but if things are going as smooth as lemon pie with an administrator, why should we junk the thing to go to a city manager?”

The answer to that is simple: For the credibility of city government.

If the new city administrator serves up a level of professionalism in local government to the liking of the community, Mayor Burke and others will have a convincing case to make that the manager style of administration is not needed.

But even if the administrator-assisted commission is a smashing success, questions will forever linger about the process of reform if the matter is not put to the voters to decide. Was the appointment of a task force merely a smoke screen to buy time until citizens cynically gave up on reform and decided they might as well “move on”?

If you think there’s a strong undercurrent of skepticism and frustration in the city now – and we do – just bypass the ballot and see what results. The 2015 city election is already going to be a rough ride for anyone associated with the current administration; denying a vote on reform would cinch a clean sweep.

So, would it hurt to wait until the administrator is on board and has had some time to whip up a city-sized serving of lemon meringue?

If the council decides to delay a decision on a referendum, it would give the appearance of continued stalling. And that would almost certainly prompt citizens to launch a petition drive to force the question of a city manager onto the ballot next year. Such a process would be a huge undertaking that would take months – and might not be necessary.

The council can settle that matter this month by thanking the task force for its good work, adopting its recommendation, and trusting voters to make the right decision.

To do anything less would only confirm that citizen skepticism and frustration are justified.

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