Did Belleville's city officials keep their campaign promises?

News-DemocratDecember 7, 2013 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com Buy Photo

— Leading up to the April municipal election, Belleville City Clerk Dallas Cook said he would improve transparency at City Hall by having monthly meetings with residents and making it easier for the public to access information.

And, City Treasurer Dean Hardt said while campaigning that, if elected, he would research whether the treasurer position could be eliminated.

A News-Democrat review shows that seven months into their four-year terms, Cook and Hardt, both independents, have not made much progress on their stated goals.

Mayor Mark Eckert, who was re-elected to a third term as a member of the Belleville Good Government Party, did what many incumbents do; he campaigned mostly on accomplishments from previous years instead of making new promises.

Any of Eckert's future goals, however, likely will be peppered with critique because there are more adversaries on council.

Voters in April elected an unprecedented number of independent candidates, and the relationships of Belleville's top officials have since been strained, marked with ambivalence to acrimony.

The Belleville Good Government Party continues to have a majority on the City Council but independents have gained more and more seats since 2009.

In April, Eckert saw the clerk and treasurer positions, once held by two of his longtime friends, go to opposing political newcomers. Seven of 16 aldermen are independents.

Hardt said after he took office, he learned his priority would first be to research increasing sewer rates to help pay for $127.3 million in mandated sewer upgrades.

Cook said Eckert has stymied his attempts to improve transparency.

Eckert, meanwhile, has seen various projects come into fruition in recent months -- such as the Crime-Free Housing ordinance and an extension of the 0.25 percent sales tax increase.

Meeting with residents

Within a month of taking office, Cook said he took steps to set up a monthly meeting with constituents.

Cook said he could not schedule any meetings because the mayor's secretary would not share the Council Chambers calendar before Cook and the mayor talked.

Eckert said he never told Cook he couldn't hold the meetings.

Cook planned to have a forum where residents can freely ask questions about any topics related to the city.

Cook said he would field the questions he can and take down the questions he cannot answer. Elected officials and department heads can attend the meetings if they are available.

Cook believes such meetings will ease the tension at council meetings, where most residents direct their complaints toward the mayor.

Residents will have a chance to vent and find out more about certain topics weeks in advance instead of waiting until the night aldermen are slated to vote on a topic.

"When people get so upset, then you have a carnival at public participation," Cook said. "He might think I'm here to cause him trouble or be an adversary, but I'm here to do good for the city."

Eckert said he cautioned Cook to only speak for the clerk's office and that it would be "out of bounds" for Cook to speak on issues he does not have control over.

It also wouldn't be a wise use of manpower asking department heads to attend such meetings if only a few residents show up and not knowing what issues will arise, Eckert said.

Freedom of information

Cook and Eckert differ in their philosophy on releasing information to the public.

They have worked on a process to keep both informed of Freedom of Information requests submitted to the city. But since the election, some citizens have complained of longer than usual response rates to FOIA requests.

Eckert said Cook is responsible for responding to requests on time. The delays are a serious matter and places the city at risk for not following the law, Eckert said.

Cook said some delays occurred because the mayor wants to see every FOIA request that comes through.

"Something I can do right away, I get told, 'We have five days,'" Cook said. "He doesn't have time to do everybody's job."

"At some point you need to trust people and have a little faith that people can do their jobs," Cook said. "I want to help him. I don't want to be a thorn in his side."

Eckert denies this and said he does not have time to review every request.

Cook also complains that Eckert has not designated Cook as the chief FOIA officer, so sometimes department heads send requests directly to the mayor and Cook never sees them.

Eckert says Cook, as the clerk, is in charge of processing the requests, but the information has to be assembled by other departments.

One of Cook's campaign goals is to make it easier for residents to get information. Cook doesn't believe residents should have to fill out a FOIA request form for everything, especially questions staff can readily answer or if it is information the city has on hand.

Cook said there was an instance where he allowed a resident to look through documents in the city's vault with a scanner because it saves the city from making paper copies, it saves the staff time from looking for information and it means the resident doesn't have to fill out a FOIA request.

A resident who makes multiple requests in a certain time frame is deemed a recurrent requester, which means the city can take longer than the usual five days to respond.

Cook said he wants to limit such designations because residents should get the information they want as quickly as possible.

Since taking office, Cook said he has noticed lapses in public records kept by the city, brought to light when a resident asked for Zoning Board documents. He has worked with the Illinois Attorney General's Office on these issues and with the Illinois State Archives to review retention schedules.

Eckert said the city never had trouble responding to FOIA requests in a timely manner before Cook. City staff typically alert the mayor and the city attorney before releasing potentially sensitive information, such as litigation, Eckert said.

The city has to keep a record of every request for liability reasons, Eckert said. For example, a resident could claim to receive a false document and sue the city. A record of the transaction would protect the city.

Eckert also said it is irresponsible for Cook to give a non-employee access to the city's document storage vault.

"I'm not trying to be difficult or less transparent, but my job is to protect the city and do what is best for the city," Eckert said.

Eliminating treasurer

Hardt, a previous Ward 4 alderman, campaigned in April alongside mayoral hopeful Phil Elmore, a former Ward 7 alderman.

On the forefront of their campaign was the idea of spending time in the treasurer's seat to see if the elected office is necessary.

"We knew that (Eckert) was adamant about not eliminating it," Hardt said, "but the treasurer's office has a staff (of eight) that could do the job."

Hardt said while campaigning that it's difficult looking from the outside to know the in's and out's of a job, and whether a full-time position is warranted.

Hardt's opponents scoffed at the idea -- Why run for a position one feels isn't necessary? -- and they are just as curious as ever about his plans.

Is Hardt actively researching whether eliminating the position is feasible? Should the role be part-time? Will ridding the city of an elected official affect the checks and balances of city finances?

Hardt said he has not had time this year to research eliminating the position.

Aside from learning the job, Hardt immediately inherited an unexpected project: Come up with three options to raise sewer rates to help pay for a sewer system expansion and overhaul.

Hardt said he will direct his energy to his campaign goal now that the council approved a sewer rate increase and the task is behind him.

"I have to make time but I can't take away from my duties as treasurer," Hardt said.

How will Hardt research whether the job is necessary?

Hardt said he will assess his current workload to see if the duties could be absorbed by other employees, look into the cost-effectiveness of eliminating the position and research statutes related to eliminating the position.

Essentially, the treasurer's office collects revenue, and oversees sewer billing and collection. The treasurer's work is different than that of the finance director, who pays the bills and puts together the budget.

Hardt said the "checks and balances" will still occur because the treasurer's staff and the duties they perform will remain intact.

If Hardt's research shows the city will save money without the position, he will recommend that the issue be placed as a referendum on the 2015 ballot.

Hardt's term expires in 2017 and he wants voters to decide before then whether to do away with the position.

Bolstering police

In the months since the election, Eckert has completed several of the projects he started in his previous term and taken on new endeavors.

The city opened Bicentennial Park; approved tax incentives for development projects at Ben's, St. Paul's Home and The Cottages at Cathedral Square; extended a 0.25 percent sales tax increase; launched a new city website; implemented a new Crime-Free Housing ordinance; and started a study for a new City Hall or police station.

Eckert said during the election he wanted a new records management system for the Police Department. The department's new system went live in November.

A contractor will soon have results on whether the Police Department should renovate its existing building, move to a new location or construct a new station.

Eckert has said at least since the 2009 election that the city needs a new downtown police station. Eckert said this month he wants to complete this goal by the end of his current term.

While Eckert's campaign focused on his accomplishments as a former alderman and mayor, his two opponents, especially Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden, worked to bring crime to the forefront of the election.

Elmore said he wanted to hire five police officers and Hayden said he would aim for 10, even 20, new hires.

Though Eckert agrees the city need more officers, he stops short of saying how many he will bring to the Police Department during his term.

Eckert said the passing of the Crime-Free Housing ordinance would add an officer to the force. The Crime-Free program went into effect in November and the city will get the new officer in coming weeks.

The desire to hire more cops has surfaced in discussions over what the city will do with revenue from the 0.25 percent sales tax increase and video gaming.

In July, during discussions on whether to extend the sales tax increase set to expire Dec. 31, Eckert said the city could hire four officers with the estimated $1.2 million the tax increase would generate coupled with a federal COPS grant.

Hayden and other aldermen wanted Eckert to commit the sales tax increase revenue to hiring officers, but Eckert said he did not want to tie up the money in this way.

The council has since approved the sales tax increase extension. The city did not get the federal grant but is now reapplying.

Aside from the officer assigned to Crime-Free housing, Eckert said this month he is committed to hiring another two officers in 2014.

He said the city will continue to monitor video gaming revenue to see if the revenue stream will support hiring an officer.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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