The Town of Normal recently brought in a government strategist to meet privately with the town council and administration.
The goal was to help the seven-member body understand the role of a city manager form of government and to help the newly elected council members transition from a mode of campaigning to one of governing, following a campaign in which voters called for a change in direction.
One month after the retreat, clear divisions remain over the role the elected body is supposed to serve in overseeing how the town's government runs.
Stan Nord and Karyn Smith were two of the top three vote-getters from among eight candidates in the April election. As Smith sees it, the two were elected—along with incumbent Kathleen Lorenz—because they wanted to fight the status quo, largely criticizing what they consider to be a lack of fiscal discipline on the council.
“Stan and I ran on a different platform and actually we are saying we were proposing to change the ways things were, so there are some individuals that still struggle to accept that we are different,” Smith said.
The two are different in philosophy and sometimes in approach. She and Nord routinely question town staff during council meetings about budget items, even after they've already asked—and been answered—in private. They feel too much of the town's business is done under a cloak of secrecy or is rushed to minimize public input.
Smith said she was gratified to see all four items on last week's council omnibus agenda were removed for discussion. Those are the items considered routine and are all voted on together, unless a council member or the mayor ask they be considered separately.
“That was one of my frustrations when I was sitting in the audience, that so much of the business didn’t get aired while there were people watching, so it is something that is a style that (Stan) and I have,” Smith said.
Nord said the correct time to raise a budget issue is when it's first identified, rather than waiting for the bureaucratic process to play out on a spending plan that a prior council approved months ago. He does this through a process he calls spot checking and it often plays out in the council chambers.
“Randomly choose places (in the budget), do a spot check, see how it’s working and if it comes back fine, great,” Nord said. “But (the council) is the last stop before something gets approved, so it is our responsibility to look out for how we are spending taxpayers’ money.”
Council member Kevin McCarthy calls himself a "chronic over-preparer." He said when he has questions, he asks staff ahead of time and leaves it at that.
“Is it valuable to rehash in public what’s already been put out to the public?” McCarthy said. “I suppose, I don’t always think some of the choices are worthwhile.”
Mayor Chris Koos acknowledges it took him well over a year to fully understand his role on the council when he was first elected in 2001, but he said he is trying to curtail the council micromanaging administration.
“It absolutely is something I am trying to curtail, and I think a majority of my fellow council members feel the same way about it,” Koos said. “It is not our job to get into the day-to-day and pick that apart. That’s the city manager’s job.
“If are unhappy about it as a majority, we can remove the city manager.”
Koos added the council taking time to approve bills during each meeting is simply a formality, because the council has already approved the expenses when it adopted its annual budget.
“Approving the bills is a matter of transparency, it’s been suggested by our auditors,” Koos explained. “It’s just an acknowledgement that the council is aware of the bills.”
He added City Manager Pam Reece has spending authority of up to $25,000 without the council approval.
Koos said he acknowledges the outcome of the recent election, but suggested Nord and Smith are trying to exert undue influence to bring about the change they want.
“It doesn’t give them any more authority than any other council member,” Koos declared. “I’ve been top vote-getter every time I ran. That doesn’t give me any more power over my fellow council members. You are now one of seven.
“Not to say we are ignoring the outcome of that vote and what people were asking for. I will say—and that’s probably another story for another day—there was an incredible amount of misinformation attached to those campaigns and that did influence the vote.”
Koos would not elaborate on what he described as misinformation.
Leaving the Campaign Trail
How much of the strife on the town council can be chalked up to growing pains? At least one council member will allow for some of that.
“It’s one of those things, when you first come off the campaign trail, sometimes you can still be in that mindset and sometimes you have to come off the cloud, and it’s OK,” council member Chemberly Cummings said.
Cummings was first elected to the town council in 2017. She said the council did take notice of the voters' intentions in the recent election, while she attributes part of the division to the tenor of American politics today. She said that's given rise to vocal opposition.
“There’s things that we can listen more on from individuals,” Cummings said. “I think what we are really seeing is a greater engagement of the community because of what is happening at a national level.”
Nord admitted he's still on a learning curve in his first-time experience in municipal government, as he’s learning how inflexible government budgeting can be.
“If there’s an opportunity to save money with a very minor change, the 'aha' piece was that it is so difficult in government,” Nord said. “In business or at the kitchen table, if you realize that you’ve got the opportunity to save some money, you can immediately make the change.”
The council can't make any significant changes to the budget until next spring, nearly a full year into Nord and Smith's first term.
McCarthy says the town builds public trust by making the proposed spending plan available to the public during the budget process and after the council has approved it. McCarthy said he's received “very few questions” from the public about it in his seven years on the council.
He added the council is still developing a code of conduct for itself stemming from that early June retreat.
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