Why DeKalb's City Clerk Position Is In Question
There’s infighting in DeKalb’s city government. It revolves around the city clerk. What does a city clerk do, how do they do it, and who makes those decisions? Recent unrest took public stage in early June. This isn’t the first time these questions have been debated in DeKalb.
Lynn Fazekas is the city clerk. She said issues began when she wrote a voluntary report published in June. It identified problems and recommendations for changes to the city clerk position that she says would improve retention and function.
“Ironically, the progress report seemed to trigger some animosity. I cannot explain that to this day,” she said.
Fazekas maintained a blog before becoming city clerk. She and other community members dissected local issues and politics similar to those in a watchdog role. She also ran for mayor in 2008 and city clerk in 2013. She was appointed to the elected seat of city clerk in 2018 by Mayor Jerry Smith because the clerk at that time resigned midterm.
Smith said he wanted to bring critics into politics.
“If I look back on it,” said Smith, “I still think it was the right thing to do. It just hasn’t worked out to the satisfaction of those of us... it certainly hasn't worked out to the satisfaction of Lynn Fazekas who has been at odds with city manager [Bill] Nicklas,” he said.
Fazekas was asked to resign by the mayor weeks after the submission of the unsolicited report. She said she doesn’t know why she was asked to resign. She refused, and said she wanted to continue out her term until 2021.
City Manager Bill Nicklas said there’s been a problem with her job performance. Nicklas said she’s not accessible enough and that’s disrupting operations. The clerk keeps the city seal. That’s a stamp that makes documents, like licenses, official. Nicklas said the deputy clerk needs to have a stamp of their own when the city clerk is absent.
"And we have the city code, which is what the council expects to be enforced, saying share the seal. Now let’s get over it. But it’s not happened. It’s not happening. And we need to get back to that,” said Nicklas.
Fazekas said she doesn’t want to share the seal because she sees potential misuse and conflicts of interest within government.
“I was unaware of any problem regarding, that anyone had, regarding my use, or nonuse of the city seal, of my supposedly impeding workflow, or whatever, by not coming in every day, and so on, and so on, and so on until June. And the trigger seemed to be my progress report itself,” said Fazekas.
Fazekas said she recently removed clerk powers from the acting deputy city clerk Ruth Scott in response to finding licenses signed by Scott without Fazekas’ knowledge. Scott also acts as executive assistant to the city manager. Scott declined to comment for this story.
“The one thing that bothers me most is that people have criticized the mayor, the council, I gather me, too, about being undemocratic or looking to usurp the people’s prerogative,” said Nicklas about critics of efforts to share the city seal.
Nicklas said he thinks Fazekas’ performance is affecting DeKalb residents. He said he wants to see better customer service for residents and faster documentation. He said Scott has been deputy clerk with no extra pay and is picking up the slack where she shouldn’t have to.
“She has been a rock for everybody,” he said.
Nicklas said there’s a lack of cooperation between the offices of the clerk and manager and wants to see Fazekas around more.
“I think the system can work. If we work together. I can work with almost anybody as long as they're willing to do their job and do it faithfully. And well, I don't need to replace the person in that instance. And the public says they want a clerk so we'll have a clerk,” he said.
The legality of the actions of some city officials, including Nicklas and Fazekas, have been debated in the community and within City Hall. Interpretation of the municipal code is in question especially as it relates to Illinois statutes and the state constitution.
DeKalb’s clerk is a part time job and pays $8,000 a year. According to Mayor Smith, there is no set number of hours for the job. Fazekas scheduled 8 hours of regular office hours a week. Details like these are another point of contentious debate.
“The compensation is only part of the problem,” said Fazekas.
Fazekas wrote in her progress report that she’s the seventh clerk in the past seven years. The mayor, manager, and clerk agree that’s a problem. The cause of this turnover is yet another point of debate. Some officials support adopting an ordinance to make the seat appointed rather than elected. Manager Nicklas said there’s a benefit to having appointed professionals in the office rather than potentially inexperienced elected people. A controversial council vote was held and another will be held August 26.
Mayor Smith says he supported making the seat appointed to address retention issues. “And the fact that that just has not worked with the restrictions of having an $8,000 part time position. It just has not worked,” said Smith.
The "appointed versus elected" question has come up in DeKalb before due to the performance of other clerks. DeKalb voters were asked whether someone like the city manager should appoint the clerk or keep the position elected. Voters wanted to keep it elected so ordinances were passed in response that changed the structure of the city clerk position.
“Maybe that past city council was somewhat short sighted in thinking that a part time city clerk working for $8,000 a year made sense for the inner workings of City Hall,” said Smith. “I’m sure at the time, they felt it was the best decision. But, you know, hindsight is always 2020.”
City Manager Nicklas first supported making the position appointed but has recently publicly reversed his position to keep it elected, according to the Daily Chronicle and council agenda.
Fazekas said when ordinances were adopted in the past, inconsistencies were created in the municipal code as it relates to the role of DeKalb’s city clerk and their office.
She said the city clerk in 2012, Steve Kapitan, got behind in one of his duties of recording session meeting minutes. “In my opinion, the City, at that time, in wanting to repair this and make sure that something like that didn’t happen again kind of overreacted. Not kind of, they did, they overreacted,” she said.
Fazekas said the power and legitimacy of the clerk’s office has been eroding due to referendums and ordinance changes since 2012. She said she saw the city manager’s office’s effort to share the seal as an example of that.
“What is happening to me in this job happened to at least two of my predecessors. We’re disposable. When we bring up problems or try to do… if we try to do anything, basically, that’s not just sitting quietly at a meeting and taking meeting minutes...we’re gone,” she said.
Derek Van Buer is a longtime DeKalb resident. He’s the son of late former mayor Frank Van Buer. He said Fazekas is a close acquaintance.
He said he feels there’s more to Manager Nicklas’ concerns about seal access and said, "Why are you lying to the citizens of the city of DeKalb? I mean, it's -- all this stuff is just manufactured.”
He said voting via ordinance and without public referendums goes against the state constitution, citing a letter written by the County State’s Attorney Rick Amato on the matter. He said clerks and deputy clerks need to be independent.
Former City Clerk Steve Kapitan agrees. Kapitan resigned from the clerk position, and said he was "coerced" to do so for multiple reasons. He said the job description has been changed so much since 2012 that it’s shifted power to the city manager’s office. He says transparency suffers in a government without an independent city clerk and deputy clerk watching the documentation and operation of the city.
“The reason we have had seven clerks over seven-and-a-half years has nothing to do with the fact that it is an elected position. It is because it is a poorly paid position. And it is a weak position in terms of its relationship with the deputy. The deputy is -- has more effective power than the clerk. And it's turned on its head,” said Kapitan.
He said the issue of the seal should have been solved through communication between municipal offices. He said recent efforts to restructure the city clerk role through ordinance proposals is a mistake.
“Instead of focusing on resolving those narrow issues, [the City] went to try and change the structure of the office to give more power to the city manager and the mayor. And that's unprofessional,” said Kapitan. Kapitan said there are similarities between the way some city officials responded to problems with his performance and what some are attempting to do now, in response to Fazekas' performance.
He said the position should stay elected and would support making the role full time.
City Council is set to vote and discuss ordinance changes to the city clerk position at a council meeting Monday night, August 26. The Committee of the Whole meeting has been rescheduled to September 9, according to city documents.