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OFF BEAT: Catching up necessary in Streator referendum talk

Derek Barichello
Derek Barichello

As the Nov. 6 election nears, Streator residents will be hearing a lot about Dixon, a city of similar size in Lee County about 75 miles northwest of Streator.

Streator residents will be asked on the ballot whether they want to keep the city manager form of government.

Dixon's government has become the prime argument for the necessity of a city administrator.

In 2013, Dixon's mayor Jim Burke put together a citizens task force in the aftermath of comptroller Rita Crundwell's theft of more than $53 million.

After a number of meetings with representatives from the three main forms of government allowed in Illinois, the task force recommended Dixon's City Council ask residents on a ballot to move toward a city manager form of government. The referendum passed.

On Wednesday, Oct. 17, Streator residents will be able to view a documentary "All the Queen's Horses," which is about the former comptroller's theft of taxpayer dollars, at Streator Eagle 6. The theater will have showings, sponsored by Streator Yes and the Streator Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry, at 7 and 9 p.m. Admission is $1.

The references to Dixon will be a walk down Memory Lane for me.

I covered many of those citizens task force meetings as a Dixon city beat reporter for Sauk Valley Media.

For context, Dixon had a commission form of government over the years Crundwell was using fake Illinois Department of Transportation invoices to steal large sums of money.

In the commission form of government, council members, known as commissioners, are elected to head city departments, such as finance, public works, etc. While there are very dedicated commissioners who make it a full-time post and other commissioners who are qualified, they are not required to be either.

Crundwell told commissioners the city's finances were not adding up because the state was not making regular payments.

There was no city administrator in Dixon. Its city engineer at the time, Shawn Ortgiesen, was known throughout the city as the de facto city administrator, because his services were necessary for many of the city's projects, but he would later face troubles of his own leading to his resignation.

Ultimately, the city didn't have enough checks and balances in place in-house, and the city's annual auditor settled a lawsuit to the tune of $40 million for not catching the theft.

Dixon's government as it was constructed didn't know where to set checks and balances, but a city administrator trained in the workings of a city would have put them in place and had the expertise to detect the theft.

That much is settled in Dixon's case.

That's not to say it had to jump right into a city manager form of government. Dixon also could've continued as a commission form of government and hired a city administrator to carry on duties similar to a city manager, which was what the City Council did prior to the referendum passing.

What the citizens task force was able to do in Dixon, Streator will not get an opportunity to do for itself, and that is to study what is the best form of government for its city.

Made up of varying community members throughout the city, the volunteer task force invited city officials from neighboring cities over weeks to learn how they ran their government.

They invited officials from Sterling and Rochelle, both city manager forms of government. They invited Tom Ganiere, who is now a commissioner in Ottawa, but who also was on a task force in Ottawa that recommended the city manager form of government years ago.

They talked with officials from Rock Falls, which has a mayor and council form of government.

They studied state statutes and talked to academic experts.

Each city official, with the exception of Ganiere who was able to give a nuanced perspective, argued in favor of their form of government and explained how they are structured.

This allowed the task force to hear the best of what each form of government had to offer and make an educated decision based on Dixon's determined needs.

When it came time for the task force to make its recommendation to the City Council, and the City Council to vote for the question to go on the ballot, there was a sense of thoroughness in this process.

This is not the case in Streator.

Changing a city's form of government is not a decision that should be taken lightly or abruptly.

Voters should know as much as they can about what they have, how it works, what they want and what's legally available.

The Times newspaper will do its part in bringing different perspectives to the table from now to Nov. 6 to help voters make their own decision.

Right now, as I see it, there's a lot of catching up to do.

OFF BEATáis a column expanding on coverage beyond the regular news beat, from ideas to issues. Email News Editor Derek Barichello at dbarichello@shawmedia.com or call 815-431-4073 with news tips, questions or to chat.

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