DeKalb aldermen say recorder plans ‘not a personal attack’ on city clerk amid clerk’s inability to perform job

Records taken at city council meetings have to be “clear and accurate,” says Ward 2 Alderwoman Bar Larson. City Clerk Sasha Cohen says plans to take away

DeKalb Second Ward Alderwoman Barb Larson talks during the Monday, May 24, 2021 City Council meeting at the DeKalb Public Library.

DeKALB – DeKalb Ward 2 Alderwoman Barb Larson said a plan to appoint someone other than City Clerk Sasha Cohen to keep minutes at city council meetings “isn’t personal,” but rather an attempt to keep up with standards of record-keeping required under law, a responsibility aldermen said the clerk fails to meet.

“It’s not a personal attack,” Larson said during Monday’s council meeting, addressing Cohen, who previously called the proposal “an attack on the independence” of the clerk’s office.

“As the city of DeKalb, we’ve had standards and they have to be maintained,” Larson said. “They have to be clear and they have to be accurate.”

Council members supported a plan to appoint an official “Recording Secretary” to the City Council amid ongoing concerns that Cohen is violating state law by failing to perform clerical duties as required, leading to incomplete city records.

City officials said minutes taken by Cohen are “chronically late and incomplete,” include typographical errors and misspellings, fail to note which aldermen make motions or how they vote, and violate the Illinois Open Meetings Act, according to city documents. In response Monday, Cohen accused the city manager’s office of continuing “a years long effort ... to consolidate the working powers of the city clerk,” and said the council held a closed executive session on Oct. 25 during which they discussed him, an elected official.

In order to alleviate the ongoing clerical issues, the city council and Mayor Cohen Barnes plan to appoint Ruth Scott, the city’s executive assistant and former deputy clerk, as recording secretary, and will vote on the measure Nov. 22. City documents state “such action will not change or diminish the duties of the City Clerk.” Among the clerk’s other duties are notarizing documents for the city and administering elections.

Scott would be in charge of handling meeting minute protocol instead of Cohen effective immediately, if approved. Scott formerly served as deputy clerk until the position was eliminated in 2019 amid controversy surrounding previous city clerk Lynn Fazekas.

Ward 1 Alderman Carolyn Morris called the issue “really concerning.” She said Cohen’s minutes “demonstrate a lack of skills, perhaps attention to detail, a lack of ability to edit basic typographical errors, and don’t record the history of our city council as it is happening.”

“This is an Open Meetings Act violation,” Morris said. “To not produce the minutes in a timely fashion ... opens the city up to the risk of future litigation when we have no accurate record of what happened in the past. We have nothing to stand on in the future when someone says something’s happened or not.”

File photo from April 12, 2021: Then DeKalb City Clerk-Elect Sasha Cohen, who also is an Annie Glidden North neighborhood resident, talks during a Monday, April 12 DeKalb City Council meeting at the DeKalb Public Library.

City officials have said they’ve attempted to address the incomplete minutes with the clerk, but unsuccessfully, and Monday tabled a vote to approve four minutes from previous meetings as far back as Aug. 23 because they’ve either not been submitted by the clerk or haven’t been edited.

According to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, meeting minutes from an open session of City Council meetings must be approved by the public body within 30 days of the meeting, or the second subsequent meeting. Within 10 days after the council’s vote to approve the minutes, the record must be publicly posted, usually on a website.

According to city documents, minutes from DeKalb City Council meetings from Aug. 23 and Oct. 25 have not yet been submitted by the clerk. The council asked Cohen to redo minutes from Sept. 13 and Sept. 27 meetings, and the new versions of those minutes have also not been submitted.

City Manager Bill Nicklas said incomplete meeting minutes “have been a larger problem, really, since the first official minutes he took,” after Cohen was sworn in for the part-time elected role on May 10.

Training tip

The clerk has come under fire in recent months for what city officials have said is failure to perform the duties of his office.

Nicklas said a few months into office, Cohen “went on a sabbatical” over the summer and neglected to tell anyone of his absence, leaving city staff to pick up the duties.

On Aug. 23, Cohen issued a public apology for a slack in duties and admitting he had for several weeks “allowed myself to become too preoccupied with other things that have been going on in my life.” At the time, Cohen said his actions resulted in his “quality of work to decline and for deadlines to be missed.”

Cohen said he’d taken summer work in the outdoor amusement industry, working 60-hour weeks.

According to emails obtained by the Daily Chronicle, days after his August public apology, Cohen asked city officials if the city would expend $600 to send him to a week-long professional development and networking conference in October. The Municipal Clerks of Illinois hosted a 2021 training institute in Bloomington which promised to be “the best education you will receive as a municipal clerk.”

Cohen sent an email to Barnes and Nicklas on Aug. 27 to request the training “to improve my performance ... as I dive back into performing my duties.”

“You abandoned your duties for weeks this summer, without explanation, and apparently assumed that someone would just fill in for you as needed without the courtesy of asking for assistance,” Nicklas said in his Aug. 27 response, denying the money for the clerk’s conference. “This behavior does not show the kind of mature judgement our residents expect of a public servant.”

In his denial, Nicklas said the city clerk doesn’t have a training budget in the city’s 2021 budget. Nicklas called into question what he said was Cohen’s lack of “open-minded or courteous” professional behavior.

“These attributes are more important than any technical expertise you might gain from the MCI Institute,” Nicklas said in the email. “In my humble opinion, your words and actions while city clerk do not inspire my confidence that you have the capacity to learn them. A case in point: by your own words, you have condemned an entire city department – the DeKalb Police Department – as “bastards.” That is not open-minded or courteous.”

Over the summer, Cohen fielded public calls to resign after voicing his personal views related to police, saying he considers himself “a police abolitionist” and believes “all cops are bad.”

DeKalb City Clerk Sasha Cohen’s public apology came after DeKalb area residents expressed concerns this month in community social media groups about Cohen posting criticisms about police and writing “ACAB,” an acronym meaning “all cops are bastards,” in public social media posts as a public official. (Screenshot by Daily Chronicle on 8.24.21)

On Monday, Cohen referenced the email thread and said the city manager was denying his request “due to my political views,” saying “All cops are bastards” is a “political expression.”

In an Aug. 30 email response to Nicklas and the council, Cohen said he “strongly disagreed” with Nicklas’ decision.

“The fundamental prerequisite for public service is a desire to make ones[sic] community a better place,” Cohen said in the August email. “Debates on points of policy can become rancorous, and while some consider shying away from continued debate in such circumstances a virtue, I find it a form of cowardice. We must say what we mean, and mean what we say, or else our word isn’t worth much of anything.”

A public officer was a topic of discussion in a closed executive session portion of the Oct. 25 meeting, according to city documents, although it’s unclear whether Cohen was the subject of that conversation. The clerk said Monday the council did discuss him in closed session in October, and said two complaints have been filed with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office alleging a violation of OMA.

The line item in question on that Oct. 25 meeting was “to discuss the appointment, discipline, performance or removal of a public officer,” and then cited Illinois Municipal Code which lists exceptions for when to close off public portions of government meetings.

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