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Dixon Officials Say City Government Transition Is Nearly Complete, But Still Undergoing Fine-Tuning

City of Dixon
Dixon Mayor Liandro Arellano Jr. and City Manager Cole O'Donnell

In 2012, Dixon officials discovered that city comptroller Rita Crundwell had embezzled more than $53 million over the course of two decades. The insularity afforded by her position played a large part in spurring residents to vote to shift Dixon toward a council-manager form of government.  This involves converting commissioners to council members and appointing a city manager to oversee day-to-day work. The City of Freeport adopted this model earlier this year, hired a city manager, and eliminated its water and sewer departments. Three years into the transition, Dixon already has made these kinds of changes. 

Under Dixon’s previous form of government, executive authority was placed in the hands of the city council, made up of four city commissioners.  These individuals ran the city's finance, health and safety, public property, and streets departments, and reported directly to the mayor.

Current Mayor Liandro Arellano says eliminating the commissioners allowed for greater transparency, 

“Auditing, all of the financials are a joint responsibility, as opposed to having silos," he said. "It means there’s more eyes on oversight, for example.”

This is especially important in light of the fact that Rita Crundwell's embezzlement was facilitated by a lack of communication  between departments.

Cole O’Donnell, now the city manager, was Dixon's administrator before the transition. He didn’t work with the commissioners directly, but his duties weren't that different from today. 

"My responsibilities were always the same: Take care of the policy matters that the council brings down, keep an eye on it financially, make sure the day-to-day operations are going well, and make sure the council reaches its visions," he said.

O'Donnell notes that the mayor had a much stronger influence on policy in the previous governmental structure.  While the current mayor still has that priority, O’Donnell says his current role provides more flexibility. He says the city manager is given a policy directive by the council.

"As long as he stays within that policy directive, he can fluctuate different things, massage things, so it gets to the same endpoint, but again, staying within the policy," he said, "where, as the city administrator, you still have a strong mayor."

While O'Donnell assumed greater responsibilities, Mayor Arellano updated city codes, policies, and overall government structure.

“Now that a lot of that work is done," said the Mayor, "we’re able to step back a little bit, let him take care of the day-to-day operations and focus more on policy and economic development, and those kinds of things that a mayor-council form of government should really be focused on."

While this means fewer drastic changes in recent months, there are still works in progress. The public works department is still being fine-tuned, since several of the old commissioner positions are now under one management structure.

"And it’s a question of how do you balance the existing talent pool, take care of your employees who came in under a certain structure, and still figure out what works best for the city’s new direction, for the new form of government, ultimately for the citizen," Arellano explained. 

Dixon also has increased hiring in the past couple years. However, due to attrition and restructuring, it has roughly the same number of city employees. Arellano says it was important to keep staff perspectives in mind.

“Sometimes it’s a little too easy as a mayor and council to say, ‘Hey, this is the best model. We need to implement that.’" he said. "But you need to make sure you’re being cognizant of the fact that the staff and the employees who actually implement that, there’s a lot of transition, a lot of change going on.”

The mayor says the most common criticism of the new government from city workers is the pace of business.

"And they’ll say, ‘Man, we’re doing so much so fast; don’t rush it,’" he said, "and then you talk to some members of the public and even councilmembers asking, ‘Why can’t we do this faster?’”

He says meetings are getting longer, but it's resulted in greater transparency.  Furthermore, the city has gotten down to around two council meeetings per month, usually with one special session. Apart from the greater discourse between citizens and government officials, O’Donnell says the change hasn’t greatly affected public perception of City Hall.

“They still see the guys working on the street, they still see the police on patrol, they still see the fire engine go out when there’s a call," he said.

Arellano says citizens have reacted well to what they do see. 

"You look at the vote for the change in form of government and it was massive, over 70%, which in electoral terms is just huge," he explained. "But that doesn’t mean there isn’t that 25% who didn’t like that idea in the first place and have a very critical eye of what you’re doing. Now they haven’t been negative.  I think a lot of people have given it room to look at and study it, but overall, I’d say in mirroring that initial vote, the vast majority of the feedback I get is pretty positive.”

Running in parallel with the change in government is a shift in how the city markets itself. A task force, known as Dixon One, was convened to reorganize the many different groups that market for the city, such as Main Street and Lee County Tourism. Arellano said that, in some cases, their work was redundant.

“You’d have cases where two different entities were advertising in the same magazine, when maybe they could have just gotten one big page, split the page up, and gotten a lower rate," he said. "So the idea was lower the overhead and use that savings to do more of whatever it is your core duties were.”

Now, the city will contract with the Chamber and Main Street through a single headquarters.

“They’re gonna be right at that building the city bought down by the riverfront," Arellano said, "which is a great location to manage festivals, to coordinate events, to help with the Petunia Festival, and some of those other buildings can go into other concepts.”

Credit City of Dixon, Illinois

These include setting up a business incubator or putting the buildings back on the open market -- which would be especially helpful for Dixon’s economic development.

“Unless an existing business opens up, it’s a challenge to find new homes for business, because the cost between new construction and existing buildings is massive,” the mayor explained.

Lee County and the local school districts have passed sales tax increases, with the former going toward the construction of a new jail). The mayor says these measures remove potential revenue from local businesses and cut into the city’s reputation for having one of the lower sales taxes in the area. 

"At the end of the day of these things take investment, and overall, we’ve been relatively anti-new taxes," he said.

Despite these challenges, both the mayor and city manager are optimistic about the future, and O’Donnell says it’s simply a matter of the council nailing down another series of long-term goals. 

Listen to Chase's full interview with Dixon Mayor Li Arellano and City Manager Cole O'Donnell.

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