The DeKalb City Council is considering an ordinance that would make the city clerk an appointed position rather than an elected one, something that would directly contradict what people have said in two referendum votes they do not want.
But it’s already an appointed job most of the time, and the people who voters have elected – when they had the option to elect anyone – haven’t always worked out so well, either.
Since Steve Kapitan resigned from the job in February 2012, there have been seven city clerks. Only two of them were popularly elected, and they have served less than three of the past seven-plus years. Neither of the people who were elected finished even half their term of office.
Some argue that it’s too hard to keep someone in the office because it’s part-time and doesn’t pay enough – although the $8,000 a year salary is about double what many towns pay their part-time clerks.
Even if you give credence to that argument, consider what happened in 2009, the last time DeKalb elected a full-time clerk. There were five candidates on the ballot that year, but the top contenders were former Alderman Steve Kapitan and then-Deputy City Clerk Liz Peerboom.
Peerboom was clearly the most qualified. She was a longtime city employee who already knew the job. If you were running City Hall like a business, she probably would have been promoted into the top job and things would have kept going.
But Kapitan, who had better name recognition by virtue of his aldermanic service, won election by a little more than 200 votes.
Although he could get the job, he couldn’t do the job.
In 2012, Kapitan resigned under threat of being charged with violating the Open Meetings Act for failing to keep minutes of closed City Council meetings.
City officials at the time said they had known for months that Kapitan wasn’t doing the work but tried to support him until they couldn’t any longer.
After that debacle, the council decided to make the position part-time. In 2013, Peerboom won election as a write-in candidate. She quit the next year, disgusted with former City Manager Anne Marie Gaura.
The position appeared on the ballot again in 2015 – although it didn’t have to – and a person who filed to run as a write-in later withdrew their candidacy. That left no one seeking the office.
In 2017, Susanna Herrmann actually got her name on the ballot, won and lasted a year. A few months after she resigned, Lynn Fazekas was appointed to the job in August 2018.
Now the complaint at City Hall is that she’s been hoarding the city seal – a collection of hand stamps in a box – and impeding city business.
In hindsight, Mayor Jerry Smith’s decision to appoint Fazekas was a misstep. Smith said he thought that bringing Fazekas, a noted critic of city government, into the fold would foster unity. It was an outside-the-box move that has backfired spectacularly.
It shouldn’t be too much to ask for a part-time clerk who works eight hours a week to do what they can while they’re there, and leave the rest of the work to deputies.
The November 2012 referendum vote on electing the clerk was overwhelming in favor of keeping it an elected office, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Most people, me included, favor public participation in government. Electing a city clerk sounds good, and if you ask voters if that’s what they want in a referendum, they’re going to be predisposed to say yes. Power to the people!
In practice, races for DeKalb city clerk have not been competitive, the winners have quit, and the last person who won a truly contested race turned out to be the wrong choice.
In light of the past 10 years of history, it’s not anti-democratic for DeKalb’s council to vote to make the clerk an appointed job. Appointees have filled the role most of the time, anyway. Future appointees should understand this is a part-time job, with part-time responsibilities, which performs a largely ceremonial and bureaucratic function.
All most people really want in a clerk is someone who will be there during business hours to put a stamp on a license or sign a piece of paper so that they can be on their way.
• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.