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Local

DeKalb city attorney's role questioned

DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith: City attorney ‘running the city’ a stretch

DeKALB – The interim city manager said Tuesday that ultimately, the decision to condemn Lord Stanley’s, Common Grounds and Lord Stanley’s Annex earlier this month was made by the city’s chief building official, Thaddeus Mack.

DeKalb resident Michael Haji-Sheikh is among the residents who have complained about how the situation was handled, particularly that City Attorney Dean Frieders was at the center of it.

Haji-Sheikh said he was confused by Frieders being present for property inspections. In his experience, no other city he has lived in allowed this, he said.

Interim City Manager Patty Hoppenstedt emphasized that it was Mack who made the final determination, thus shuttering the businesses over a weekend and costing them thousands of dollars in revenue, owners said.

“The chief building official did advise the interim city manager and city attorney of the concerns regarding this building prior [to the condemnation] on the day it was condemned, but the ultimate determination is made by the chief building official,” Hoppenstedt said.

DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith said operational decisions are made by the city manager, but in many cases, the city needs to consult with other department heads or, in this case, the city’s legal counsel. But to suggest that the city attorney is running the city is a bit of stretch, Smith said.

“The reason we have a city attorney is to address issues or to consult with him on issues as it relates to the legality or practicality of doing something,” Smith said. “He is not a department head, but we rely on his advice as any municipality would on making a decision on what to do, whether it be condemnation or anything that has an impact on a business or property.”

In an email Frieders sent to Mack, the city’s fire prevention officer and DeKalb police officers, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the city attorney said the properties had significant structural problems and requested additional officers.

“If workers are there working, please let me know,” Frieders said in the email. “If possible, identify them, describe what work they’re doing and do a report. If we could add a bit of extra patrol in that area, I’d appreciate it.”

Haji-Sheikh, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Northern Illinois University, sent an email to Smith and council members asking why Frieders made engineering decisions related to the property without a license. He also raised concerns over the extra patrols, which could deny property owners access to their buildings for repairs.

Hoppenstedt said in a statement that anytime the city condemns a property, it is standard practice to notify the police department and request extra patrols for two reasons: The building might pose an immediate danger, and some property owners disregard condemnation orders and initiate building repairs or modifications without discussing it with the city.

Haji-Sheikh’s assertion that assessments made by staff require an engineering degree is incorrect, she said.

“The building codes of the city of DeKalb, along with the overwhelming majority of communities across the entire nation, contemplate that the chief building official makes an initial determination when condemnation may be required,” Hoppenstedt said. “In the case of fires or overnight emergencies, that same decision is made by the fire department. This does not require an engineering degree.”

Hoppenstedt said the initial determination from city staff will be revised once a structural engineer or architect assesses a structure, as happened in this case and previous condemnations at such sites as the Campus Cinemas and Otto’s properties. In each case, the structural engineer has concurred with the chief building official’s determination.

“The city attorney is not responsible for giving permission for repairs to occur; that decision comes from the chief building official,” Hoppenstedt said. “However, because the city attorney works very closely with the police department, has a relationship with all of our officers and is responsive around the clock, the city attorney does serve as a point of contact for the police department on issues like this that have legal implications.

“[Frieders’] job is to inform and advise,” Hoppenstedt said. “In his capacity, he will absolutely give us the pros and cons, but Dean does not have authority on behalf of the city. It’s not his role, and it never has been his role.”

Hoppenstedt took charge after former City Manager Anne Marie Gaura abruptly resigned in March, about four months after the City Council narrowly approved an extension of her contract that set an indefinite term and an 8.4 percent increase in salary.

As part of Gaura’s resignation agreement, she received six months’ salary, or $84,000, $15,100 for unused vacation time and about $9,600 in unused sick leave.

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