By Tina Richards
The Villa Park City Council is struggling to find the balance between transparency for its constituents and overkill, and building teamwork without stifling individual initiative or open discussion.
The bulk of the council’s Jan. 24 meeting was devoted to suggestions introduced by Mayor Bill Nelson and Councilwoman Diana Fascenelli intended to boost council cohesion and public transparency.
Nelson proposed that in order for an item to be placed on the council agenda, it must have the blessing of at least two council members. Until now, a member could agendize a topic that he or she believed was important to the community. Nelson wanted to establish the “two person rule” because, he said, “if only one of four wants to talk about it, it’s a waste of time.” He cited “frivolous discussions” about adding a second story to city hall as an example.
Fascenelli disagreed. Requiring two councilmembers to agendize an item “stifles creativity,” she said. “This isn’t an issue. We’re not here until 1 a.m. talking about what’s frivolous.” And, she recalled, the second story conversation was initiated by the Villa Park Community Services Foundation because the city needed a community room. “It was something we needed to discuss,” she recalled.
Open to ideas
“We have to make sure the public doesn’t think their ideas are frivolous,” Councilman Robbie Pitts said. “If someone comes to me with an idea, I’ll bring it forward.”
“You should bounce it off another council member first,” Bob Collacott interjected. “And we do allow public comments.”
Villa Park resident and 2016 council candidate Howard Kirschner took the public comment bait. “The idea of votes or counts needed to address an item is offensive to me,” he said. “It’s not the Villa Park culture.”
The council voted 3 (Nelson, Collacott, Vince Rossini) to 2 (Fascenelli, Pitts) to approve the two-person mandate.
Nelson also recommended the council take part in a structured team building and strategic planning session to “get us all on the same page.” Professional facilitators had been queried, and the city had bids for $12,000 to $15,000.
“We were elected as individuals,” Fascenelli pointed out. “We don’t make team decisions. We’re not here to be a team, but to represent the city. I won’t participate in a $15,000 kumbaya. All we need is common courtesy.”
“Do we really need to spend that much money to tell us how to plan?” Pitts asked.
Agreeing that if not all five council members would participate in the proposed team building/planning session, Nelson agreed to “let it percolate.”
Fascenelli had agendized several discussion items ahead of the newly instated two-person rule. Focused on increasing transparency in city government, they ranged from changing the council’s voting procedure, to making audio recordings of all committee meetings, to removing community development from the law enforcement committee and disclosing outside board membership.
The Community Development Committee (CDC) had been folded into the Law Enforcement Advisory Committee (LEAC) by the previous council. Fascenelli recommended it be reinstated as a separate entity because LEAC focused on public safety issues, not community development. As a result, she said, things were happening in the city that “nobody knew about.”
“Things like cell towers, high walls, HOA camera surveillance systems used to come to the CDC,” she advised. “It gave us awareness of events in the city. Now, we know nothing about it.”
Collacott noted that former city manager Jarad Hildenbrand neglected to tell the council about “those things” and that the CDC/LEAC relationship was designed to provide law enforcement expertise to a range of subjects.
“Variances have nothing to do with law enforcement,” Fascenelli said. “We’re missing that part of it.”
Noting that sounded like a “communications” problem, Pitts suggested deferring the community development question until a city manager is hired. The council voted 4-1 to postpone it; Nelson was the sole dissenter.
On the record
The topic of audio recordings fared better. Residents have complained that committee meeting minutes are either sketchy or nonexistent. All meetings are open to the public, but, held during business hours, few people attend. Anyone looking for information on a specific committee or topic would be hard-pressed to find it.
Vince Rossini agreed, noting that if committee meetings were not recorded, it would “send the wrong message.” With Fascenelli stressing that the public should know what goes on in committee meetings, the majority of her colleagues agreed that they should “buy a recorder, tape the meetings and put them on the city website.”
Nelson observed that written minutes should be enough, but he was overruled by his colleagues in a voice vote.
Voice votes are not the norm. Generally the council votes on an issue one by one as their names are called. That allows members at the end of the roll call to see what the others have said and, perhaps, vote accordingly. Fascenelli, noting that “we should vote independently, not based on what others do,” advocated for an electronic voting system, or if cost prohibitive, “use paddles or chalkboards.” “We should vote on what’s best for the city,” she said, “not what’s popular. It’s unfair to the public.”
The council unanimously agreed that roll call voting should be replaced. It rejected “paddles and chalkboards” but concurred that the cost of an electronic system should be researched – something the new city manager will be asked to do.
Fascenelli also suggested that the council further transparency by disclosing what boards (agency or organization) they sit on. “It could represent a conflict of interest,” she said.
By law, council members must disclose financial conflicts of interest, but there are no statutes pertaining to nonfinancial conflicts. “Transparency is the word of the day,” Nelson admonished. “It’s none of your business what boards I‘m on.” The additional disclosure requirement was rejected 3 (Nelson, Rossini, Collacott) to 2 (Fascenelli, Pitts).
VP City Council assesses procedural changes with mixed results