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Geneseo Republic - Geneseo, IL
  • Geneseo mayor, city council spar on array of issues in four-hour session

  • In a contentious four-hour session — which included a committee of the whole meeting, an executive session and two city council meetings — Geneseo aldermen and the newly-elected mayor Nadine Palmgren squared off with each side labeling the other “hostile.”
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  • In a contentious four-hour session — which included a committee of the whole meeting, an executive session and two city council meetings — Geneseo aldermen and the newly-elected mayor Nadine Palmgren squared off with each side labeling the other “hostile.”
    Prior to the start of the 6 p.m. April 22 committee of the whole meeting, Palmgren asked attorneys Derke Price and Margaret Kostopulos of law firm Ancel Glink to identify themselves.
    “I called you this morning and asked you not to be here,” said Palmgren, questioning the firm’s right to act for the city.
    Attorney Price told Palmgren they were in attendance at the request of three city aldermen, and added the firm has been engaged by the city since mayor Pat Eberhardt’s administration.
    Discussion of the city’s legal representation by Ancel Glink, a Chicago firm which specializes in municipal law and wrote the Illinois Municipal Handbook, continued during the committee of the whole meeting.
    Palmgren said that during mayor Linda Van Der Leest’s four-year term in office the city had paid Ancel Glink $277,848 for legal services. In addition, Geneseo attorney Virgil Thurman serves as the city’s legal representative. Thurman is on retainer by the city for approximately $25,000 a year.
    Between Ancel Glink and Thurman, Palmgren said the city has spent close to $400,000 on legal fees.
    “There’s a perception that Geneseo is spending a disproportionate amount on legal services, but that doesn’t weigh out,” said alderman Keith Kennett.
    Kennett said, on average, the city spends $97,000 a year on legal services. In comparison, he said Princeton spent $103,000, Streator spent $108,000 and Rochelle spent $155,000.
    “Those are similar communities which also have municipal utilities. I’d say we’re pretty much in the same ballpark,” said Kennett.
    Palmgren told the council she wanted a procedure in place whereas Thurman would be consulted before Ancel Glink’s office was contacted.
    “He’s being by-passed for simple and easy questions,” said Palmgren.
    “I have no problem being contacted first and no problem saying if it’s not an area I feel confident giving advice. Ancel Glink does a very good job and they’re experts,” said Thurman.
    “There is a time issue,” said alderman Justin Snodgrass, who noted Thurman works for the city one day a week.
    During a recent labor negotiation, alderman Howard Beck said calls were to attorneys late at night and documents were faxed back and forth.
    Palmgren said invoices from Ancel Glink fail to note who contacted the firm and what issues were discussed.
    Page 2 of 4 - “When an individual alderman calls, do they speak for the entire council? The mayor? What authority does that person have to incur those types of fees? I’m concerned with the willy-nilly incurring of expenses,” said Palmgren.
    Ancel Glink attorney Price said the firm had “very rarely received a call from an individual aldermen” noting most calls came from the city’s administrative consultant Jim Hughes or attorney Thurman.
    The firm was used twice to battle an issue between the city and Johnson Controls. Each time, Johnson Controls was requesting $800,000, said Price.
    “A year and a half ago, there was an IMRF (Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund) audit which had the potential to require the city to pay significant penalties,” said Ancel Glink attorney Kostopulos. She said Geneseo faced “state and federal withholding penalties, penalties and interest to IMRF and repayment of overpaid taxes to an individual.”
    The firm also was used during an arbitration situation with the city’s police union.
    Alderman Kennett said the legal fees paid to Ancel Glink were for “a handful of large, special situations.”
    Newly sworn-in alderman Jason Robinson, who was attending his first full meeting on April 22, said he feared there was a perception being created that the city was “just throwing away money.”
    “It’s good to know it’s not rogue aldermen calling. Legal advice is very expensive, and I don’t want to create a perception that this is a free-for-all,” he said.
    Aldermen said they supported creating a protocol to determine how and when outside legal advice is consulted.
    The first special city council meeting, which immediately followed the committee of the whole, was called by aldermen Kennett, Doug Crow and Bob Wachtel.
    City hall staff asked newspapers, including the Republic, to publish a notice announcing committee of the whole meetings would be consolidated into city council meetings and that the April 22 committee of the whole meeting would not occur.
    Palmgren said she wanted to merge the meetings together “so we don’t have to pay department heads and council to be at two meetings.”
    “When people come to a city council meeting, they expect to hear what’s going on. It makes sense to have them both on the same evening,” she said.
    Committee of the whole meetings are, traditionally, where the council discusses issues to be placed on the council agenda.
    The aldermen who called the meeting said “state statutes and the city’s charter” prohibit the mayor from canceling a meeting without council approval.
    Page 3 of 4 - “I was elected to give the citizens a voice. The flow chart goes citizens first, then the mayor, and then the council,” said Palmgren.
    “This is a terrible start for a council to do to a new mayor. I want to distance myself from those three aldermen (Kennett, Crow and Wachtel) and hope the rest of the aldermen would distance themselves as well,” said Palmgren.
    “When you call for the rest of the council to distance themselves from three aldermen, that’s what I call a hostile environment,” said Wachtel.
    Palmgren said the aldermen’s meeting was an attempt to “control and silence me” in her efforts to promote transparency for city affairs.
    Palmgren said in her first two weeks in office, she’s worked to implement cost-savings efforts. The last city newsletter cost $7,000 to publish. She said she felt a newsletter could be done for a “more conservative” price.
    She also said she plans to utilize the city’s own IT staff and not outside contractors. She looks for “more conservative negotiations” with the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) and has eliminated a planned logo for the Geneseo bandshell.
    The council supported Palmgren’s initiative to reinstate the co-op program, allowing high school students to work for various city departments.
    The second city council meeting was called by Palmgren and included a list of complaints she wanted investigated, including Wachtel “falsely posing as mayor pro-tem without authority” and “violating proper FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) procedure in obtaining documents.”
    In the past, Wachtel has served as a standing mayor pro-tem. However Thurman said, technically, that’s not the correct procedure.
    “We’ve done that in the past and just assumed we could have a standing mayor pro tem, but, as a point of clarification, it appears the law requires the council to elect a mayor pro-tem when there’s an absence of the mayor. Mayor pro-tem is a fill-in for a specific purpose,” he said, but added, the city has used a “standing” mayor pro-tem “going back decades” even though that method was recently discovered as being incorrect.
    When asking for information in regards to the merged city council/committee of the whole meeting, Palmgren said Wachtel identified himself to city staff as “mayor pro-tem.” Wachtel denied the alligation.
    Palmgren said Wachtel also did not fill out FOIA forms to request e-mails and communications regarding the meeting’s change.
    Thurman said city aldermen could request information without needing to file a FOIA request.
    Page 4 of 4 - Palmgren said the three aldermen were trying to “circumvent policy and proceed in trying to discipline and dismiss one of my employees” for providing the meeting change notice to the newspapers.
    Palmgren said the aldermen opened themselves up to litigation by naming the city employee in their original special city council meeting posting.
    However, a previous city employee took legal action against the city in part because she wasn’t mentioned by name in an agenda in regards to possible disciplinary action.
    “The fact is, there has been a precedence set for us (in naming employees). It’s a unique type of situation,” said Thurman.
    “Nobody wants to discipline staff members, we’re just concerned as to why the committee of the whole was canceled,” said alderman Snodgrass.
    Aldermen said Palmgren “stopped all communications” when they attempted to ask for her reasons. Palmgren countered the aldermen wouldn’t return her calls and e-mails.
    “We don’t get answers, we just get the run-around,” said Snodgrass.
    During her special city council meeting, Palmgren also asked the council to investigate complaints that alderman Wachtel violated the City of Geneseo Ethics Code by solicitating names on a petition for mayor for previous mayor Linda Van Der Leest, disseminated political letters to Geneseo residents in support of Van Der Leest and had a letter to the editor in the Geneseo Republic in support of Van Der Leest.
    “Yes I did. What’s the problem?” asked Wachtel.
    Attorney Price said the City of Geneseo Ethics Code applies to full-time city employees.
    “He’s not using public funds or public resources. He’s an elected official. It’s his First Amendment right,” said Price.
    No action was taken in regard to issues addressed at either special city council meeting.

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