It's been more than a year since the Rita Crundwell scandal rocked the city of Dixon. The former comptroller is serving a federal prison term for embezzling more than $50-million from city coffers. With court proceedings on the back-burner, the community is debating how to move forward with a form of government aimed at restoring public trust.
At Ken’s Barber Shop in downtown Dixon, where a routine haircut is winding down, the topic of the morning is anything but local government. When the subject is broached, customers and employees tense up. One loyal customer, who did not want to give his name, says it remains to be seen whether local citizens can restore their faith in city government after one of the largest cases of municipal fraud in U.S. history was uncovered last year.
“It’s anyone’s guess. It’s a bad situation, but I’m not in love with politicians anyway.”
Whether they love politics or not, Dixon residents face a possible ballot question next year that aims to drastically change how city government is run. In response to Rita Crundwell’s arrest and subsequent conviction, a task force was created to come up with recommendations on how to improve transparency and oversight at city hall.
Marilyn Coffey chaired the committee, which recently unveiled its findings.
“We felt that, first and foremost, the city needed to professionalize a lot of the services that were happening,” Coffey said.
In addition to having a part-time mayor, Dixon is run by four part-time elected commissioners who oversee various departments. The task force says the city should switch to a manager-style government, where someone with training can effectively run day-to-day operations under state regulations. That means the city council would act more as a legislative body, with a focus on policy decisions.
The city is in the process of hiring its first-ever administrator, who would operate like a manager. Coffey says while it’s a step in the right direction, it’s not enough.
“They’re gonna have a city commissioner, but they’re gonna continue with commissioners, who are ultimately in charge of their departments,” Coffey said.
In order to be adopted, the recommendations from the task force need to go before voters. The earliest that can happen is November of 2014. Coffey says while there isn’t any single person on the commission to blame for the recent scandal, she feels they need to put the question on the ballot to let the people decide if the status quo is working. If the commission doesn’t place it on the ballot, she guesses enough signatures will be gathered to ensure a referendum will happen.
Dixon resident Jan Grimm says she would probably vote yes.
“If they could have some checks and balances for everything, I would be happy with anything. What we’ve got now isn’t working. It’s obvious,” Grimm said.
The feelings expressed by Grimm seem to reflect a mood in Dixon that change is inevitable. But fellow resident Chuck Jones says he doesn’t want city hall to restructure itself just for the sake of doing so.
“Our current form of government is not faulty in it of itself. It’s probably good as most forms of government,” Jones said.
Jones says in the case of Rita Crundwell, along with a credit-card scandal involving a separate administrator, it was a situation where an individual made bad choices. But he notes that if enough people get behind the ballot effort, he could be convinced it’s the right way to go.
Current streets and public works commissioner Jeff Kuhn says he’s open to change, but he hasn’t made up his mind whether to support placing the city manager question on next year’s ballot. He says he wants to see how the soon-to-be hired administrator does in the first few months on the job. He also notes that the current group of commissioners, most of whom are in their first terms, is strongly dedicated to shaping up city hall.
“We have completely reshaped the financial department. There are oversights on oversights now. Everything is checked and double-checked,” Kuhn said.
Still, Kuhn says the city does need some professional help. He says he will continue to research whether it should ultimately come in the form of an administrator, or a manager.
Kurt Thurmaier is a public administration professor at Northern Illinois University. He says the community is making the right move in considering the issue.
“When you look at the scandals that keep showing up in different parts of Illinois, rarely are those in a government run by a professional city manager,” Thurmaier said.
Thurmaier says that’s because, through training, people who enter the field are extremely grounded in ethical behavior.
“That grounding, that orientation makes them alert for irregularities, and they are hyper-sensitive to the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Thurmaier said.
Like others, Thurmaier says you can’t point the finger at individual commissioners in Dixon. He says it’s the form of government at issue. He says hiring a city manager brings one voice to the table when it comes to setting the tone for overseeing city departments.
As for winning back the public’s trust, Thurmaier says it’s hard to find a situation to compare to Dixon’s. Given the magnitude of the recent scandal, he says the city will have to show it can conduct daily business in an ethically-grounded environment. He says switching to a managerial government would go a long way in making that happen.