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Residents sign petition to end manager form of government

The city manager form of government has been in place in Streator for more than three decades, but some believe it’s time to revert to the commission form of government.

Larry Thomas, former councilman candidate, began circulating a petition after hearing concerns from customers at his barbershop, as well as around town, regarding the city manager position.

Thomas agrees with many of those he hears concerns from.

“I just don’t feel like we’re being represented well by our council members that we elect,” Thomas said. “This is a non-elected position that carries an awful lot of authority over every aspect of our town.”

Thomas cited other communities such as Ottawa, where he lived previously, running with a commission form of government and began circling the petition to get it before a judge and have the question added to the November ballot.

Thomas needs 146 signatures, or 10 percent of the votes cast in the last election for mayor, along with approval of a circuit clerk judge to put it on the ballot. He intends to have more than double that number.

What’s the difference?
The city of Streator previously was run as commission form of government wherein elected officials are selected to run specific city departments part-time.
Mayor Jimmie Lansford said the switch to the city manager form came after some elected officials were indicted after ignoring documents from the state regarding the Clear Water Act.
Lansford said that cost the city millions of dollars as the sewer system had to be replaced and the reimbursement rate dropped from 90 percent to 50 percent.
Councilman Ed Brozak said it was a clear sign a professional administrator should be brought in.
“We lost millions in funding that were available before and citizens had to pay for that lack of knowledge,” Brozak said.
Lansford also noted there were many financial issues and little economic development prior to the manager’s position being available.
Under a city manager form of government, the council hires a professional to run the city’s departments and finances.
Dawn Peters, executive director of the Illinois City/County Managerial Association, said 81 municipalities have a council-manager form of government and she’s unfamiliar with a city returning back to the commission form of government after having adopted the city manager form. She said the commission form is more likely to be abandoned than any other form.
She said this is due in part to the possibility of corruption and the need for professionals to run city finances.
“You have people who don’t have the necessary education, background and experience running full departments,” Peters said.
Peters specifically mentioned the city of Dixon where it was discovered the comptroller stole nearly $54 million in two decades under the commissioner form of government. The city then adopted a city manager form following those events at the recommendation of a citizen study group.
Beyond the possibility of corruption, supporters prefer the council-manager form of government due to having an educated professional managing the books of an entire city rather than an elected official.
“Generally, people run for the right reasons but when it comes down to it, they may have no knowledge of what it takes to run that department,” Brozak said.

City manager operates on council’s behalf
Lansford said most of the decisions made at the city manager level are decisions that directly reflect the council’s goals. If they do not reflect those goals, the council is well within its power to not follow through on them or hire a different city manager.
Lansford noted it was his own interest in working on the city’s infrastructure, economic development, fiscal responsibility and selected annexation when coming into office that current City Manager Scot Wrighton works toward as city manager.
“You may not like the city manager but that is no reason to want to get rid of the city manager form of government,” Lansford said. “The people elect the council and if the council is satisfied with the direction and the work they’re getting and what the city manager is providing them, then what’s the issue?”
And for the most part, the council has been satisfied with that work.
Council members Tara Bedei and Brian Crouch both spoke highly of Wrighton and the position.
Bedei noted Wrighton sits down with council members one-on-one to get a consensus from the council regarding which direction he should take. Sometimes options never make it to council agendas based on that feedback. She added the position lends itself to additional checks and balances for the city.
Crouch said Wrighton is doing a "fabulous job with keeping the city on track" and handles a variety of financial and day-to-day tasks that the general public is generally unaware of. 
 
Manager saves on salaries
Lansford added Wrighton takes on a number of tasks and titles that are divided up in other communities and saves the city money from having other positions or paying for services, such as grant writing.
Lansford said he and Wrighton handle the city's economic endeavors. By comparison, Bob Eschbach, mayor of Ottawa, and Reed Wilson, Ottawa director of economic development, made a combined $155,996 in 2017 according to openthebooks.com. Wrighton's salary in 2017 was $130,175 in 2017 according to openthebooks.com and Lansford's salary in 2015 was $19,000 according to an earlier Times article.
Lansford noted the tax increment financing districts have drawn ire from some, but ultimately have led to new business and jobs in the community.
“Everything has been a positive move for the future and the decisions we’re making today will have a positive influence on the success and survival of this community 20 to 25 years in the future,” Lansford said.
He also noted the position brings consistency in government operation while council members can be voted out of office, meaning that knowledge and experience continue with the manager.

Too much power for non-elected official?
Thomas acknowledges he’s had disagreements with Wrighton in the past but said this isn’t a personal attack.
“This isn’t about Scot. It’s about the long run,” he said.
Thomas said he believes the new form of government makes a city council “rather obsolete and unnecessary.” He said if a person is unqualified to operate the city’s finances or run its departments then the public shouldn’t elect that person to office.
“My goal is to put (the power) back in the hands of the council members,” Thomas said. “Now it’s just thumbs up or down with little responsibility or accountability.”
He prefers a form of government where elected officials are directly responsible for departments as they are beholden to the voters for their position on the council.
Thomas understands the prior form of government had its issues, but that enough time has passed for voters to have a clear look at both forms of government and their associated advantages and disadvantages.
Councilman Joe Scarbeary said while he’s new to the council and sees the advantages of having a city manager he would listen to the voter’s voice.
“It does have its advantages, however, if there is a petition and enough people sign it, in the end it’s up to the voter,” said Scarbeary, who is a city firefighter. “It’s up to us to do what they want and not what Scot Wrighton wants."
Scarbeary said he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with the current form of government but does think it’s best to put these sorts of decisions up to the voters.
“It’s for the people by the people and sometimes Mr. Wrighton assumes too much or does too much without the direction of the council,” Scarbeary said.
Thomas said he’s heard many complaints from residents regarding the current form of government and doesn’t see the harm in starting a discussion locally regarding whether the current form of government suits Streator today.
Ultimately, he too, wants to hear from the voters of Streator.
“Just get it on the ballot,” Thomas said. “Let the voters decide.”

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