Observations from FOCUS DeKalb meeting

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Ninety-three people attended the FOCUS DeKalb Town Hall meeting. Seventy-one signed the sign in sheets.
Rants and Raves of Mac McIntyre
Rants and Raves of Mac McIntyre

Ninety-three people attended the Oct 29 FOCUS DeKalb Town Hall meeting at the Red Roof Inn. At issue is the City of DeKalb proposed commercial property inspection ordinances and the frustrations of an unfriendly business climate accentuated by a soft economy with a declining population, market and EAV.

It was nice to see IL House Representative Bob Pritchard in attendance and taking notes. District 7 County Board member Misty Haji Sheikh attended and offered words of encouragement and concern. She, her husband and 80 other concerned citizens flooded the last city council meeting asking questions and wondering why the mayor and aldermen discuss things like the recurrent John Street/College Avenue, Ellwood Historic Neighborhood, and College Town Partnership plans more behind closed doors than with their constituents.

Ninety-three people attended the FOCUS DeKalb Town Hall meeting. Seventy-one signed the sign in sheets.
Ninety-three people attended the FOCUS DeKalb Town Hall meeting. Seventy-one signed the sign in sheets.

Not a single city council member or member of the senior administrative staff was in attendance. Public notice of the meeting was published by the Daily Chronicle, WLBK AM 1360, DeKalb County Online, Facebook and Twitter.

Mayor John Rey and City Manager Anne Marie Gaura had declined two requests from FOCUS for a formal public hearing. But after the rejection of the requests were learned from media coverage of a FOCUS press conference public pressure mounted and the City reversed its position. Perhaps the 6pm start time was too inconvenient for them.

In a letter to Ken Andersen, DCBDA executive officer and FOCUS member, Gaura wrote:

[…] Based on the informal Council consensus that we believe to exist, and based upon the need to hear from all interested stakeholders, we do not anticipate having a discussion of the proposed process at the November 10 City Council meeting. At the request of interested community members and businesses, staff has recommended to the Council that the discussion be delayed, to allow interested parties the opportunity to provide feedback to be used in the formation of a revised policy and that simply cannot happen in a meaningful fashion before November 10.

However, because the Council had previously taken action to continue this matter to November 10, the agenda will include an action item relating to this matter. The action item proposed for Council will be to postpone consideration of the commercial building program and to adopt the following timeline:

1) Complete community stakeholder meetings.

2) Convene a joint meeting of all of the stakeholder groups. At this point, the City is looking to November 21 as a possible date for that joint meeting of DCEDC, DARA, the Chamber, DCBDA, FOCUS DeKalb and other interested groups.

3) Assuming that the community stakeholder meetings are completed, return to City Council with a staff presentation regarding a revised proposal on December 8. This would consist of a staff presentation on a revised scope, based upon the community feedback received. The presentation would focus on the revised concept and would not include a revised ordinance.

4) Conduct a public hearing on January 12, 2015. The City and interested stakeholders have a common interest in the free exchange of ideas and open discussion of the proposed ordinance. To that end, the staff recommendation is to follow a format similar to that being utilized in the stakeholder groups, with an informal format where the City Council can directly participate and where interested parties can provide thoughts, recommendations, suggestions and feedback. The recommendation is certainly to encourage question and answer, much in the format of the discussions held to date, and to do so in a positive, non-adversarial fashion. This is anticipated to be a discussion of the revised concept of the ordinance. We believe that it would be impossible to agree on the language of the ordinance, and counterproductive to draft ordinance proposals back and forth, until there is some general direction on the conceptual organization of the program. If the concept of the program is dramatically different, the resulting ordinances will be dramatically different—so reaching a clear understanding of the concept is critical to preparing a clear ordinance.

5) Based upon the discussion on January 12, staff would develop a revised ordinance and would circulate that to all of the affected groups. At today’s meeting with the DCBDA, one concern raised was the need to have a public hearing regarding not only the concept of the ordinance but also regarding the specific language of the ordinance. Accordingly, the proposal would be to conduct a second informal public hearing on January 26 (assuming that the City and the stakeholder groups were prepared to proceed at that time), regarding the actual language of the ordinance. The ordinance could be considered for first reading at that time, or could be postponed at the discretion of the Council.

6) At another City Council meeting thereafter (potentially February 9, if the balance of the proposed schedule holds), the Council could consider the ordinance on second reading. […]

Moderators Will Heinisch and Michael Coghlan acknowledged that the City of DeKalb has publicly indicated that they were reworking the language, inclusions, exemptions and structure of the proposed regulations. But so far the City has not shared any actual language other than what was formally proposed at the Sept. 8 city council meeting.

Coghlan cautioned against accepting concepts as the law because in his experience in public service as former DeKalb County State’s Attorney and in his private practice it is clear that it is the actual words of the ordinance that become the law enforced.

Chuck Shepard a builder and commercial property owner in DeKalb was at the Aug 25 meeting when the proposed regulations were asked for by the council after the city attorney, Dean Frieders narrated a PowerPoint Presentation during Committee of the Whole that showed the horror stories of the three commercial buildings — Wurlitzer, Ottos and Travel Lodge. When Shepard asked the Mayor to be recognized and tried to ask questions Frieders would not address them until the Mayor approved. The procedures of Committee of the Whole does not allow public input or questions.

But Shepard learned to his amazement that the staff would be back at the next city council meeting with a proposed ordinance seeking approval. Staff would not provide any details on the proposal until the city council meeting agenda was published just four days before the city council meeting. When business partners read the proposed ordinance they were alarmed and said the new regulations were a deal killer.

Mike Carpenter told the audience that he would much rather talk to them about his company RVG Commercial Real Estate and be out trying to fill the growing number of vacancies in the city. He said the retailers and restaurants were passing on DeKalb because new homes aren’t being built in the city to indicate growth and the market was in fact shrinking. He wondered if all of the time and energy the city staff and council were putting into this ordinance and the time and energy spent by the business community in trying to stop a train wreck could be better used trying to get the city business friendly again.

Deb Baird presented the regulations and inspections home-based day care centers faced. She showed thick bound notebooks full of paperwork and inspection records. More of the same would be costly, redundant and inefficient. Baird had heard accounts of the City withdrawing home-based businesses from the proposed amendments but the only written records available stated that any property that welcomed or served customers in their facility would be subject to the new laws.

Bill Arhos, owner of University Shell in DeKalb, heard that the city was targeting gas stations in the proposal. He said his business was already inspected annually and he’s never had an issue except for make busy work such as painting walls that couldn’t be seen and putting siding on a shed in the back of the property. Those tasks cost a couple of thousand dollars to complete.

Michael Haji-Sheikh offered his support and empathy. He has been battling the same behind closed doors approach on the DeKalb City Center plan and said the City needed to move towards open, transparent and honest government. He advised the audience to show up to city council meetings en masse such as the 80 or so that showed up to voice their concerns and opposition to back door policies.

John Anderson told the room that Home Rule or the abuse of it was at the root of the problem with the City of DeKalb. He said if the audience joined together to put the question of Home Rule on the ballot it would get done.

The City is now proposing the fire department to head up the inspection program and would call in outside help only when the scope of their inspections exceeded their expertise. The City would create a new position in the Fire Department with clerical support at an estimated annual cost of $240,000 in new expenditures from the general fund.

As the meeting was coming to a close, Brian Morsch reported that he just received a text from someone at the finance advisory committee that said the city staff was recommending a 10% increase in their share of the property tax levy.

FOCUS DeKalb is conducting another town hall meeting Wednesday Nov. 5th at 6pm at 1790 Sycamore Road (behind Dairy Queen and next to Baxter & Woodman). Members of DeKalb’s industrial community will be on the panel of speakers. The public is invited and encouraged to attend.