Council Appointment Shows Democracy Inaction

By Michael Kleen ~ Published November 13, 2013 at the Rock River Times

CityofRockfordLogoIn April 2013, Vernon Hilton (D) won a narrow victory over Pamela Connell (R) to become alderman of Rockford’s 6th Ward. Less than six months later, Mr. Hilton resigned and moved to Texas for a job opportunity. Before leaving, he recommended that his friend Marcus Hill be appointed to fill the vacancy. After interviewing five applicants and reviewing their résumés, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) chose to appoint Marcus Hill.

The appointment made the front page of the Rockford Register Star. Their sub headline read, “Mayor says Safer Foundation rep Marcus Hill is best of 5 candidates for 6th Ward.” Given the information presented in the article, we are led to believe that yes, this was a wonderful decision. The Register Star, however, did not report the full story. A more complete view of the facts about the candidates will show that this was far from the best decision the mayor could have made.

Let me make one thing clear; my purpose is not to denigrate or disparage the appointee. I’m sure Mr. Hill is an upstanding man and might make a perfectly fine alderman. My purpose is 1) to point out that Mayor Morrissey’s argument in favor of his decision is either questionable, disingenuous, or both, and 2) to point out the Register Star’s omission of certain important facts from their coverage of that decision.

Continue reading “Council Appointment Shows Democracy Inaction”

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Head Start a Red Herring in Stimulus Scandal

By Michael Kleen ~ Published October 30, 2013 at the Rock River Times

redherringEver since Rockford’s stimulus funds scandal erupted over the summer, media coverage has focused on a peripheral issue: the fate of Rockford’s Head Start program. This has effectively distracted the public from the costly and embarrassing mistakes made by senior Human Services Department officials that led to the scandal. Rather than focusing on the lack of oversight and accountability, the public’s outrage has been misdirected toward a phony issue involving Head Start. Here is how it happened.

In July of this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General released the results of a partial audit of Federal stimulus funds given by the State of Illinois to Rockford in 2009. The Inspector General found $205,296 was used for “unallowable” reasons under the terms of the Recovery Act award. A further $141,796 was deemed “potentially unallowable.”

After conducting a review of the audit, the City of Rockford released a memo outlining its findings. City Administrator James (Jim) Ryan recommended that Rockford “return” $298,671.84, establish a Grant Program Compliance section within the Rockford Finance Department, and restructure the Rockford Human Services (HS) Department. The $298,671.84 would come from “recaptured loan funds” and Rockford’s Redevelopment Fund.

Continue reading “Head Start a Red Herring in Stimulus Scandal”

Great Turnout for EIU Presentation

Thank you everyone who came out to my “legends and lore of Coles County” presentation at Eastern Illinois University last night! The event was a huge success – we actually had to move to another room to accommodate the crowd. Thanks to Becky and Lesley for helping out, and again to Morgan and Diane and the rest of the EIU Creative Writing Club exec board, As a bonus, my presentation made the front page of the Daily Eastern News today. Here’s a snippet:

Coles County Full of Hauntings
By Ashley Holstrom/Staff Reporter

The legend of the ghost of Pemberton Hall is the most well known in the area, but Michael Kleen, author of “The Tales of Coles County,” has many more to share. And he did, to an audience of about 50 students and community members at an event hosted by the Eastern’s Creative Writing Club Thursday.

Most people in the audience raised their hands when asked if they believe in ghosts, and Kleen said he was surprised that the few who did not would come to such an event. “Maybe we’ll make believers out of you,” he said.

He grew up reading ghost stories, went to Eastern, and realized not much had been written about the legends percolating around the area. So he did it himself.

This is the best quote:

The story of the ghost of Pemberton Hall hits closest to home — literally, for a few members of the audience. “Have a good night tonight,” he said, laughing, to the few women who said they live there.

My next presentation in Coles County will be at Lakeland Community College in February.

Presentation at EIU Tonight

I’m heading back to my alma mater Eastern Illinois University to give a presentation about Tales of Coles County, as well as “the legend of Pemberton Hall” and other local ghost stories. It will be from 7-8:30 p.m. in the Paris Room of the MLK, Jr. Student Union at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. The event is free but I will have books for sale. If you’re in the area, come on out!

The Daily Eastern News ran a preview article of the event in today’s paper, but I’m told they will be there tonight and do a more extensive article tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to this, and I have to give a big thank you to Morgan and Diane from the EIU Creative Writing Club for setting this up.

Haunted Charleston to be examined

Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 11:07 pm

The legend of the Pemberton Hall ghost, as well as hauntings across Coles County, will be explored at a presentation Thursday.

Michael Kleen, author of “Tales of Coles County, Illinois,” will examine the historical and cultural contexts of haunting folklore in the Charleston area through his presentation, called “The Legend of Pemberton Hall.”

Kleen said the original talk of the Pemberton Hall ghost has multiple origins, including that a student was murdered in the residence hall during the 1920s and that the spirit of the hall’s first dorm mother still looks after the girls in-house.

He said there have been many reports over the years of odd or paranormal occurrences, including rearranged furniture and doors strangely opening and closing.

Kleen said while there are no records of murder in the hall, he nonetheless feels compelled to examine the history of such urban folklore, regardless of its truth.

Read the entire article at this link!

New Illinois Campaign Finance Law Reduces Transparency

By Michael Kleen ~ Published October 16, 2013 at the Rock River Times

campaign-finance-scandalChanges to Illinois campaign finance disclosure law will make it easier for political bankrollers to hide behind first-time candidates. Public Act 98-0115, effective July 29, 2013, made several changes to Illinois disclosure law, including a $2,000 increase in the threshold for new political committee formation. That means a candidate can now raise or spend up to $5,000 before he or she is required to file with the State Board of Elections.

Previously, the threshold for new political committee formation was $3,000. According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, “Once it has been determined that your campaign has exceeded $3,000 in either receipts or expenditures… it must file a Statement of Organization (Form D-1) with the State Board of Elections within 10 business days.” (A Guide to Campaign Disclosure, Jan. 2013)

Filing with the State Board of Elections means (among other things) that cumulative contributions from an individual totaling $150 or more during an election cycle must be itemized on a publicly available quarterly report. The donor’s name, address, and the amount of his or her donation appear on that report. If the candidate has not reached the threshold for new political committee formation, however, that information remains private.

Continue reading “New Illinois Campaign Finance Law Reduces Transparency”

Those Troublesome TIFs

By Michael Kleen ~ Published October 2, 2013 at the Rock River Times

Housing market collapseIn “Trouble with TIFs,” I discussed Tax Increment Financing (TIF), and how TIF districts deprive local governments and school districts of revenue. I also talked about how several studies have shown the unfavorable results of using TIF districts to address blight. In most cases a blighted area was no better off after TIF than it was before, and in some cases it was worse.

There is no doubt that when taken as a whole, Rockford’s experiment with Tax Increment Financing has been a failure. City leaders, however, continue to create new TIF districts and bet on their ability to stimulate growth, despite sobering evidence to the contrary. Not only have TIF districts failed to spur widespread development and raise property values, they threaten to drown our city in a sea of red ink.

In 2010, the consolidated balance for Rockford’s 30 TIF districts was $1.9 million in the red. That deficit was projected to increase to $4.1 million in 2022, before the trend would turn positive. Less than three years later, the consolidated balance for Rockford’s 32 TIF districts was $2.76 million. That deficit was projected to increase to $11.38 million in 2023, before reversing and ending in a small deficit in 2032. This projection was based on 1 percent annual growth of assessed property value and the assumption that no new TIF districts will be created, or no current TIF districts extended beyond their expiration dates.

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Rockford Rewards Failure in Response to Stimulus Fund Scandal

By Michael Kleen ~ Published September 22, 2013 at the Rockford Register Star

CityofRockfordLogoEarlier this month, Rockford City Administrator James Ryan released a memo with his recommendations for how the City should respond to a U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s audit. The audit covered roughly $599,000 in federal stimulus funds Rockford received in 2009. In part, Ryan recommended returning nearly $300,000 in funds that were improperly spent.

Ryan’s memo outlines a clear failure (whether intentional or not) to follow stimulus fund guidelines on the part of Rockford Human Services Department staff. This failure may constitute, at the very least, a neglect of duties.

George Davis, Executive Director of the Rockford Human Services Department, first became aware that the Office of Inspector General was looking into Rockford’s use of federal stimulus funds in the fall of 2011.  He told City Administrator James Ryan, “Given our general accounting practices and Department fiscal procedures I don’t expect that we will have any significant issues.”

Director Davis stated in a letter dated March 5, 2013 to Sheri Fulcher, Regional Inspector General for Audit Services for the DHHS, “…we followed the requirements for documentation as we understood them at the time.” He told the Rockford Register Star on July 26, 2013, “It’s not a case where we had explicit guidelines and instructions and didn’t follow them. We had no unique guidelines.”

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