City Council Meeting Was “Unbelievable”

At the conclusion of yesterday, September 12th’s City Council Meeting, we posted on the openNauvoo facebook page that the meeting was “unbelievable.” We have searched for a more descriptive term to describe it, and have come up empty.  The meeting was at times very thoughtful, at other times it was difficult, and then there were the moments when it was outright unbelievable. Unbelievable in the sense that you would never expect these words to come out of an elected official’s mouth, and that they would be so weakly side-stepped. And also unbelievable that the City Attorney continues to participate in Nauvoo City meetings and disregard the law. This is absolutely a meeting our readers should review after reading this article.

On to the specifics, and we’ll try to cover them in the order they occurred in the meeting.

There was a minor error in the Agenda posted by the City Clerk (probably the City Collector in reality). It identified the Hotel Motel Tax Board under its old name, the Hotel Motel Tax Governing Board. When the Mayor suggested to the City Clerk that this needed to be corrected, she was dismissive, making a remark about how it had been the other way for so long. Unbelievable, considering it was in her role as the Nauvoo City FOIA Officer that the Attorney General of the State of Illinois notified her that her contention (as a representative of the City of Nauvoo) that the Hotel Motel Board was independent of the City was incorrect, and required correction.

The discussion of City Ordinance 2017-8 was one of the most unbelievable moments of the entire evening. The City Attorney herself made a change to the ordinance, but still represented it as the second reading of the Ordinance. This “Second Reading” was approved, and another vote was taken to authorize the waiver of the 3rd Reading.   If the ordinance has changed, then the new version of the ordinance has never had a vote by the council to approve it. It then requires a 1st reading, which is actually what happened last night, a first reading of a new ordinance. Since it was voted on as a second reading, this was a violation, and should invalidate City Ordinance 2017-8 until it can be approved by the City Council properly. (65 ILCS 5/3.1-40-40)

Next up was the New Business portion of the meeting.  The first excitement came when discussion occurred on the Center Stage Music request to use the former school for a Haunted House during the pumpkin walk. This is a popular attraction, and worthy of some indulgence by the City Council, but the fact that the token payment for use of the School one year ago ($50) was not paid to the City until recently, requiring several requests by the Economic Development Committee, would warrant some justifiable criticism. The Mayor and City Council members related concerns about damage to floors, doors and lack of a timely exit and cleaning of the building last year, as well as a fee of $100 this year. This was met by the representative of Center Stage Music defensively, with little willingness to take responsibility for previous issues. The new representative from the 4H organizations taking on the Haunted House this year seemed much more responsive, and had timelines, and supporting documents. With the recognizable charitable status of 4H, this should also alleviate the concerns about the Haunted House claiming donations to Center Stage Music the last two years, unbelievably, a for-profit business (not incorporated, or registered with the State as a Not-For-Profit).

In rapid succession came the Hotel Motel Board portion of the meeting, followed by Alderman Reynolds.  The Hotel Motel Board, in their last meeting, rather than follow the City Ordinance, voted to request a revision of the City Ordinance that was just passed, that created their Board, related to the review of the Tourism Director (2017-8) . The President of the Board, Alderman Anozie, stated that they felt it was adequate to review every quarter, like a school teacher, rather than monthly as the City Council already requested when it passed the ordinance. (A side note: after five years in the position, the Tourism Director has still not had a single written review). The Mayor correctly notified them that this would require a revision to the City Ordinance, and also informed them that until a new ordinance is passed (if it is passed), they are legally required to operate under the existing ordinance, and that the Board President (Alderman Anozie) should get her Board to prepare a review of the Tourism Director before the next City Council meeting. The Board is already in violation of the new ordinance. In addition, and not discussed, will be the necessity to fashion a new contract for the Tourism Director if a new ordinance is in fact approved, since the existing contract also states that monthly reviews will occur.  We were happy to hear questions by Alderman Reynolds (also a member of the Hotel Motel Board) regarding what the Board will need to do if the deficit (already identified in the last Hotel Motel Board meeting) continued. There was agreement that the decrease could require changes to the Hotel Motel budget, and expenses.

Alderman Reynolds question about the reduction in Hotel Motel taxes this year only made her next comments more unbelievable. One minute, she was pointing out the reduction in revenues the City is suffering, and the next minute she was suggesting that perhaps something should be done to limit nightly vacation rentals. In particular identifying one local company as a target. She claimed to have had numerous requests from citizens, but when pressed for specifics, simply replied that they think it “doesn’t look good” when visitors drive into town. The Mayor stood for liberty and educated Alderman Reynolds on the reality of property rights, telling her that the area she is concerned about is zoned for business (she lives in this business district), and that to limit their use would not be proper. One citizen attending the meeting questioned Alderman Reynold’s “targeting” of one particular business. She could only say “that’s not what I meant,” a comment we have heard before. Unfortunately, rather than dismissing this as unnecessary and unwarranted, the Council simply chose to say that this needed “more review.”

On a high note, a retired Police Chief badge was presented to Tom Hopp in appreciation of all his work in service to the citizens of Nauvoo.

The City as a whole has made progress in conducting meetings within the law. There were a couple of issues that should be addressed, but overall it was the attitudes of some individual members of City Government, outside of the procedural issues, that created the questions. This is a process, but unfortunately some individuals, and some attitudes keep raising their heads.

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A Rough Start for the New Hotel-Motel Board

It’s easy enough to say that the majority of challenges with the inaugural meeting of the new Hotel Motel Tax Board were due to inexperience. The new President has never been in this role before, and most of the members have not had this level of responsibility to establish a new direction for a City Board.  That accounts for most of the challenges of this meeting, and will be corrected by reviewing Robert’s Rules of Order. They’ll get it. A thorough review of the Local and State Ordinances is also in order, as well as a review of the Tourism Director Contract, and the issues related to the conduct of the previous Board.

This new Board is a great opportunity to move forward in a positive direction. To assist the Board in building on a solid foundation, a review of just a few of the more significant issues in this meeting might be helpful:

1. The City Council passed a new Ordinance regarding the conduct of the Hotel Motel Tax Board just last month. In this new ordinance, a review policy was established for the Tourism Director. City Ordinance now requires the Tourism Director’s performance to be evaluated monthly and reported to the City Council. The responsibilities of the Board include:

“To oversee and evaluate the performance of any retained service providers by providing monthly evaluation reports to the City Council (on or about the first of each month), with recommendations for changes or other action;”

Rather than establishing a criteria to send to the City Council, or conducting a review as required by the brand new ordinance, the Board chose to recommend to the City Council that this review be delayed, and be conducted quarterly. After five years on the job, there has never been a formal evaluation conducted and recorded (we have requested copies and were told they do not exist), and the contract was renewed last month with the clear statement:

“The Hotel/Motel Tax Board will evaluate Orth’s services monthly and request that any deficiencies be corrected.” 

2.  A discussion of additional spending by the Tourism Director was mentioned in passing, with a statement by the Tourism Director that she had spoken with the Board President prior to moving forward. The President of the Board has no individual authority, and this should have been presented to the body of the Board.  There was no challenge to this disregard for the Board’s authority, and the potential need for a review by the City Council, in this meeting. In the future, the Tourism Director will hopefully be instructed on the proper procedure to follow. (In the end, the Tourism Director did mention that she had made a mistake in her calculations of the amount in this budgeted item, and may not have needed to call the Board President, but if she does in the future, it would be advisable for the Board President to refer the item to the Board via an agenda item).

3.  There was no review of current activities of the Tourism Board, or the Tourism Director to ensure they are in compliance with the new City Ordinance, and the State Law it references. In particular, promoting businesses outside the City limits, and promoting events and activities that do not promote nightly stays. Both of these issues are clearly outlined in State and now Local ordinances, and there are specific conflicts with the way the Board operated in the past. The new Board should take the task to review all current programs and processes to ensure compliance.

This new Board is an example of the City’s willingness to comply with the finding of the Attorney General’s Office, and it will take proactive efforts to correct the issues created by previous decisions. Considering the current shortfall in tax revenue reported by the Tourism Director (over $17,000 behind last year to date), timing is critical in evaluating how to refocus the funds available to the Hotel Motel Tax Board, and not just rely on contingency funds.  An amended budget may be in order, with the changes in responsibilities that compliance with State and Local ordinances mandate.

 

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An Update on Undisclosed Documents, and Another Attorney General Request

On August 24, 2017 we provided a FOIA request to the City of Nauvoo FOIA officer via email. Since they had not been included in the response the City provided after the Attorney General opinion was received which told them they should do so. The request included:

  • Meetings for Hotel Motel Board Meetings held April 3, 2012, April 9, 2012 and April 27, 2012.
  • Audio recordings for these same meetings.

A response was received today, September 1, 2017 (dated August 30, 2017), via USMail. In their response, the City of Nauvoo failed to provide the requested documents and recordings, claiming they had previously been supplied on July 31, 2017. In the City’s July 31, 2017 letter, they addressed our previous request for “Nauvoo Hotel‐Motel Tax Board meeting audio records and minutes for 2012-2016” with a statement regarding “The agenda and minutes of the Hotel‐Motel Board’s open session meetings held on these dates: April 3, 23 & 27, 2012.” (emphasis added) No comment regarding additional “closed session” meetings was made, or any justification for excluding them.

The City has provided partial meeting minutes for April 3, 2012 and April 27, 2012, but has failed to provide any copies of any meetings for April 9, 2012. An email received from the Mayor, John McCarty on June 22, 2017 stated that these minutes had not been provided because “The April minutes included an April 3rd, 9th and 27th but these were executive sessions.” The FOIA Officer has not provided any justification for failing to provide any of the requested documents, other than the false statement that they already had been provided (in her most recent letter).

The stated reason for closing these sessions was that they included discussions related to hiring a Tourism Director. This position has consistently been described by the City as an “Independent Contractor,” and her contract identifies her as such. As we stated in a previous article, there is no exemption provided in the Open Meetings Act for closing a meeting to consider awarding a contract, or making the proceedings of such a meeting unavailable to the public.

In addition, if the City at the time had felt it was justified in closing the meeting, recordings were required to be made of these meetings. The Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act are very clear on what is required in order to conduct a meeting where the public is excluded.  One requirement is that the meeting be recorded. The city stated in its most recent letter, that “There are no records responsive to your request for audio tapes…The meetings are not taped, so no tapes are available to reproduce.”

This continues the saga of withholding the content of these meetings, and how exactly the Tourism Director contractor was awarded. Considering that bids were not solicited, and have not been on any subsequent awards of the contract, we would like the public to have access to what transpired.

We have subitted a Request For Review to the Attorney General’s Office, and are confident that the result will be the same as the last request concerning this body.

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