To Avoid Another Crundwell, Dixon Changes Government

Apr 25, 2016

The city of Dixon radically restructured its government to a council-manager format. The changes come in the wake of the Rita Crundwell embezzlement scandal.  Officials hope these adjustments will prevent a similar case of fraud.  

From 1983 to 2012, Rita Crundwell served as Dixon’s comptroller.  During her tenure, the city suffered frequent budget shortfalls, but many residents believed this was due to management issues and the economic cycle.  However, in 2011, a city clerk discovered a secret bank account into which Crundwell had deposited city funds.  An investigation by the FBI showed Crundwell had embezzled nearly $54 million from the city to support her quarterhorse breeding operation. 

Crundwell was arrested, charged, convicted, imprisoned, and ordered to pay restitution.  Although the city received some of the stolen funds back in a settlement, the incident shook confidence in Dixon’s municipal government.  Officials point to Crundwell’s isolation in the finance department as the key factor concealing her fraud.  City Manager Cole O’Donnell says the idea was floated to change Dixon to a Council-manager form of government. 

“The idea came about in 2014 early in the year, and there was a citizens committee that was formed in order to bring that forward to a referendum,” he said.

The previous structure placed executive authority in the hands of the city council, as well as four city commissioners (divided into finance, health and safety, public property, and streets.)  O’Donnell says the new format would shift this authority toward him. 

“One person that then reports to the council, versus department heads reporting to individual council members or commission members,” he said.  

More than 70% of voters approved the switch to a council-manager form of government.  Two years down the line, the city has replaced the commissioners with individual department heads, elected a new council, and hired O’Donnell as City Manager.  Although the transition has been relatively smooth, he says council members are still adapting.

“There’s been a little bit of a learning curve on how government operates.  It moves a little slower, a little more deliberately.  We’ve had to explain to a couple of them, the reason being is we have to make sure we protect the citizens, whether it be their rights or finances, so that we’re not damaging somebody through an action we take that is perhaps rushed in haste," he says.

An example of this deliberation can be found in a “narrative” that was added to this year's city budget.  Certain statements were added to the text that directly become policy.  To explain this concept, O’Donnell uses the example of hiring two sewer department workers.  

“Those positions could only be hired once we go back to the council and say ‘we’re ready to hire,’ and give that approval.  Without that statement, once the budget was approved, the staff could, if we really pushed the issue, just say, ‘Okay, you approved those two positions, we can start hiring them.’  But because the council wanted us to make sure we followed a certain policy, we added the narrative, which allows them a little more control,” he explains.  

Another aspect of this transition is consolidation, particularly in the area of public works.  Director Tim Ridder says areas that were once the purview of commissioners, such as sewers and streets, are coming under his umbrella. 

“We’re going to merge from six individual solo operations into a team environment with a public works department into multiple divisions,” he says.

Ridder believes this team-based mindset results in a greater degree of interdepartmental cooperation. 

“Instead of having just the water department fix your water stuff, now the water department also helps with snowplowing and also helps if the sewer department needs some help.  Or vice versa.  Sewer department has a job and they’ll have water guys or street guys work.  The change has been instead of thinking about ourselves individually, we think of ourselves as what we can do for the public works team," he said.

Ridder says there also has been a focus on cross-training employees, so that public works can compensate if a particular department runs short on staff. 

“We had a situation a month or so ago where we were shorthanded.  We had some people on vacation, someone was off sick, we had a vacancy in the water department, and we had a water main break.  In the past, we would have run short people on fixing the water main break.  Instead, what we did was pull someone from the street department, he came in on the weekend and helped them fix that.  I think the citizens are going to find things are much more efficient and more effective, and hopefully we’ll respond in a quicker manner than we have in the past," he said.

A major impetus for Dixon's government restructuring is the desire to  preventing another Crundwell from rising to power.  O’Donnell says that isn’t guaranteed under this new system, but it can be stopped earlier with effective internal policies.   

"...where there is multiple levels of command and control so that one hand is checking what the other hand is doing, so that one person isn’t handling all the finances.  One person may make the deposit, one person records it, one person balances the checkbook, so that there’s multiple checks and balances," he said.

Ridder says it’s also about collaboration. 

“It’s not the city of Dixon Finance Department, it’s the City of Dixon Team, and we’re all part of the same team.  I think when you take that attitude, it rolls into how you think about your job, the expectations of the people you work with.  I mean, you can never say never, but I think it’s very unlikely to say that something like that would happen again because we are making such a concerted effort to be a professional organization,” he said.

Both Ridder and O’Donnell believe that the change to a Council-Manager government will make Dixon more transparent and efficient.  They hope residents will feel the same way.