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COLUMN: Streator, consider Dixon's experience

COLUMN: Streator, consider Dixon's experience
COLUMN: Streator, consider Dixon's experience

A petition is being circulated to change the form of city government in Streator.

Some believe the city manager has too much power. So they want to return the city to a commission form of government, which Streator once had and Ottawa still does.

To most eyes, the commission form seems to be working well in Ottawa. Perhaps that's because the longtime mayor, Robert Eschbach, considered being mayor a full-time job and was eventually paid that way. But Eschbach is not running again in 2019, so the city has no guarantee his successor will be full time.

Under the commission form, power is spread among a number of officials, so no one person has too much. This system goes against the old-fashioned city bosses.

The problem with the commission form of government is that it gives administrative powers to part-time City Council members, who are called commissioners. There is no guarantee commissioners have professional expertise in the areas they oversee.

In Ottawa, there are commissioners for public property, public health and safety, accounts and finance, and public improvements.

The lines of authority are less clear in a commission form of government, unlike in the council-manager form, where the city manager is in charge of day-to-day operations, overseen by an elected mayor and council.

In 2012, I was working for the newspapers in Dixon and Sterling when Dixon's bookkeeper, Rita Crundwell, was arrested for making off with more than $50 million over more than a decade.

Dixon had a commission form of government.

About a year before Crundwell was nabbed, the council picked a new finance commissioner, Dave Blackburn. He was the business manager at the local school district, so he had the expertise to watch over the city's books.

He was appointed after the longtime commissioner, Roy Bridgeman, retired. Bridgeman was Crundwell's high school typing teacher and held the role of finance commissioner for years. A nice man to say the least, but was he the best qualified to manage the operations of the finance department?

At Bridgeman's last council meeting, he praised Crundwell for treating every city dollar as if it were her own. I know what he meant, but after her arrest, his words took on a new meaning.

Months after the scandal came to light, I spoke with Ralph Contreras, who had left the council the same time as Bridgeman. He served from 1991 to 2011. I figured he would be a good person to tell me how the city operated all those years.

Contreras told me he and other council members "let the people down" by not catching Crundwell's theft. He said an unwritten rule barred council members from interfering with their colleagues' areas of administrative responsibility. He said he wondered why Crundwell took so much time off, but refrained from inquiring because of the tradition.

Contreras, the commissioner of streets, told me he "stuck" to his area of responsibility.

It would have been nice if all the council members in Dixon had a stake in overseeing Crundwell. In the wake of the corruption, Dixon residents voted to change to a council-manager form of government, despite the surprising resistance from some in the political establishment.

Streator residents would do well to consider Dixon's experience.

Opening the talks

I'm no apologist for President Donald Trump, but he should get credit for opening up negotiations with lawmakers to the public.

In recent months, he has allowed cameras inside two meetings with members of Congress on immigration and gun issues.

We get to see lawmakers make their points to the president and witness how he responds. What's wrong with seeing our leaders work to solve the nation's problems?

In 2010, President Barack Obama took questions for more than 80 minutes about his health-care proposals at the annual Republican congressional retreat. I thought it was a good move at the time and wished he would make it a practice. He did not.

In Great Britain, the prime minister fields questions from the opposition weekly. It makes for lively exchanges.

Usually, all we hear are talking points that go unchallenged. So kudos to Trump for talking with the opposition. I hope he continues to do so.

David Giuliani is a reporter for The Times. His weekly column "As It Is" expands upon regular news coverage by adding his insight and ideas. He can be reached at 815-431-4041 or davidg@mywebtimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tt_dgiuliani.

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