KANKAKEE — The Kankakee City Council has approved a union contract that drops the requirement for code enforcement officers to become certified.
For more than a month, the issue has divided the City Council. One alderman even was chided by the city attorney for discussing the controversy publicly.
In late April, the council voted 9-4 against the agreement, apparently because it excluded the longtime rule that code officers must pass a test before the end of their first year.
Last Tuesday, though, the council changed course, voting 7-6 against the contract. One member switched sides, and a newly elected alderman who supported the agreement replaced an opponent.
In her recent monthly live video, Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong said the test for code enforcement officers, whom she called property maintenance inspectors, was mostly geared toward building inspectors. Building inspectors focus on new construction, she said, and code enforcement officers handle issues such as grass length, smoke detectors and chipped paint.
“We are testing our property maintenance inspectors on tasks they don’t perform. That’s not fair and doesn’t make sense,” the mayor said.
Another reason to drop the requirement, Wells-Armstrong said, was to reduce the code department’s turnover, which she said was probably the highest in city government.
Code officers in other towns still have the testing rule, she said, but their officers typically handle building inspection duties as well.
“Under those circumstances, they need to be certified,” she said. “Kankakee has those jobs separated out.”
The union brought up the issue during negotiations, Wells-Armstrong said.
In April, Alderman Dave Crawford, R-3, told the Daily Journal in an interview that the city was considering dropping the certification requirement as part of the union contract. He said the city should require the higher standard, as he said other towns do.
After a closed session Monday, the council approved the contract with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 9 without discussion, dropping the certification rule.
Voting for it were Carmen Lewis, D-5; Danita Grant Swanson, R-4; Fred Tetter, D-7; Carl Brown, D-7; Cherry Malone-Marshall, D-1; Mike Cobbs, D-6; and Michael Prude, D-1.
Dissenting were Crawford; Larry Osenga, R-3; Tyler Tall, D-5; Stacy Gall, D-2; Chris Curtis, R-6; and Michael O’Brien, D-2.
When called to vote, Jim Faford, R-4, at first passed, apparently to see how others would vote. Then, he abstained, without an explanation. He didn’t return two messages asking why.
Both Faford and Malone-Marshall voted against the contract in April.
Crawford’s public statements about the issue earned him a rebuke last month from city attorney Mike McGrath, who said the alderman could not discuss closed session matters in public. The attorney suggested that an alderman who reveals such issues is in violation of the state’s open meetings law and could draw a censure from the City Council.
A 1991 attorney general’s opinion contradicts McGrath, saying state law gives public bodies no power to sanction its members for disclosing information from closed sessions. The open meetings law allows public bodies to discuss limited matters such as union negotiations behind closed doors but says nothing about preserving the secrecy of those discussions.
After Crawford brought the certification issue to light, a number of residents have spoken at council meetings urging the city to keep the testing requirement.
In her recent live video, Wells-Armstrong said it was unwise to discuss union negotiations in public.
“We want to be respectful of employees and the union,” she said.
‘SUNSHINE’ AT CITY
Last Wednesday, the Daily Journal emailed McGrath asking him again about his legal reasoning. The mayor, who was copied in on the mail, responded in McGrath’s place.
Wells-Armstrong noted that the attorney general’s opinion in question was nearly three decades old. And she said the council has the power to censure members. But she did not answer questions about McGrath’s reasoning on the open meetings law.
“Again, there is sunshine in my office and my administration is committed to transparency,” Wells-Armstrong said in an email. “However, the city of Kankakee has had a number of issues that fall under the guidelines for discussions during executive sessions — union contracts, sales tax litigation, pending litigation and other matters.”
Although McGrath hadn’t responded to earlier Daily Journal messages, he responded after the mayor’s email Wednesday. He said he would comment later because he was in a deposition all day.
“I will get back to you tomorrow to set your reporting straight as you have stated a number of incorrect statements, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to report any inaccuracies,” he said in an email.
He did not get back with the Daily Journal the next day.