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Local Column

DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith: Sharing transparency on city clerk battle

DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith
DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith

Editor’s Note: The following column is the remarks DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith made at Monday’s meeting of the DeKalb City Council.

It was early June, when City Clerk Lynn Fazekas and City Manager Bill Nicklas voiced disagreement over an update report our clerk wanted to release to the council and the public.

To me at the time, it appeared that Fazekas and Nicklas had a basic disagreement over what the litany of city clerk elections and appointments over the past many years meant for the long-term role of that position.

Following a rather unfriendly email exchange between Fazekas and Nicklas, it was clear to me that we needed to have a meeting to clear the air. I asked Fazekas, Nicklas, Assistant City Manager Ray Munch and Deputy City Clerk Ruth Scott to a face-to-face meeting.

My email on June 5 stated, in part: “The meeting on Friday, while a partial focus may be on the report and Bill’s subsequent progress report, my primary reason for calling the five of us together is to discuss teamwork and the importance of City Hall comraderie.”

After Fazekas declined to meet, I shared with her my disappointment at her decision. Frankly, I still felt that we could move forward … with at the very least a peaceful co-existence between the offices of city manager and city clerk.

I discussed this individually with each and every alderman. Each seemed to be satisfied that my optimism made sense.

Little had I realized that the issue of the city seal, and its unavailability to Deputy Clerk Scott while Clerk Fazekas was not in her office, would lead to City Manager Nicklas requesting an executive session after the July 22 council meeting to discuss what his office felt was a personnel issue impacting City Hall business.

Following the discussion, with clear consensus on the part of our aldermen, I was directed to ask for Fazekas’ resignation.

I followed that directive, and following a very short discussion with Fazekas that took place after the executive session, she declined my request to resign.

Since then, there has been a whirlwind of public sentiment concerning the city clerk herself … and the position of city clerk itself.

It has morphed into the elected vs. appointed argument, leading to the consideration of ordinances that would make the clerk an appointed position and specify that the deputy clerk can perform any duties of the clerk when the clerk is absent.

As you probably know, it was my feeling that the appointment of Fazekas nearly a year ago was a good one.

Daily Chronicle General Manager Eric Olson, in a column appearing in last weekend’s newspaper, said I did this to “foster unity.” He was absolutely spot on.

Calling it an “outside-the-box move,”
Mr. Olson wrote that it “backfired spectacularly.” Gosh, Eric, at the time I truly believed it was a good move.

Now, as your mayor, I am perplexed, frustrated and disappointed that it has come to this. I am now at odds with one of my most trusted friends, and my own alderman, Bill Finucane.

I genuinely feel that his publicly released proposal to amend this ordinance is nothing more than a Band-Aid of sorts.

Likewise, I feel that the amendment does not respectfully address the arguments of City Manager Bill Nicklas, who has skillfully crafted a rationale for this council changing the way a city clerk is chosen. I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate manager Nicklas’ day-by-day performance since we appointed him to be our chief operating officer. He has done a yeoman’s job.

During church services Sunday, a line from a Gospel reading from St. Luke stood out to me. I looked it up after Mass. It reads “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much.”

We as a council have been entrusted to do the right thing.

As I wrestled with what was the best action for this City Council to take, I seriously considered asking the council to postpone action on these ordinances.

However, in reading through the ordinances, I’ve concluded that they do address the issues and make a strong case why appointing a city clerk makes sense.

I truly hope the council agrees.

• Jerry Smith is the mayor of DeKalb. Reach him at 815-748-2099 or email
jerry.smith@cityofdekalb.com.

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