$53 million was embezzled from Dixon, Illinois in part because the community had a commission form of government

Rita Crundwell is accused of embezzling $53 million from the small community of Dixon, Illinois. In this account of how this happened, an argument is made: Crundwell’s embezzlement was made easier because Dixon operates under the commission form of municipal government.

Something else—ominous in retrospect—summons a small-town feel: the unusual system of governance. Since 1911, Dixon has been run by the commission form of government, an old model used by only about 50 of the 1,300 municipalities in Illinois. Power is divided among five people: a mayor and four part-time commissioners who oversee their own fiefdoms (public property, public health and safety, streets and public improvements, and finance).

The positions pay a pittance—the mayor makes $9,600 a year; the commissioners, $2,700 each, according to the annual budget—which means that most officeholders juggle their duties with full-time jobs and spend limited time at City Hall. The owner of a carpet and flooring store served as finance commissioner for a number of years. He was succeeded by a business teacher and athletic coach down at the high school, Roy Bridgeman, who served for more than two decades. As for Mayor Burke: he runs his own real-estate firm.

The problem is that “the commissioners are just citizens,” says Jim Dixon, a retired attorney who served as mayor from 1983 to 1991 and is a descendant of the town’s founder. “Some of them may not always have been qualified for the areas they were elected to oversee.” Dixon says he pushed, unsuccessfully, to change to the far more common city manager model of government.

Still, the commissioner system made for a neighborly and easygoing approach and seemed to accomplish the goals that gave rise to its adoption in the first place: placing a check on the power of the mayor’s office and curbing the possibility of corruption. It didn’t hurt that it also saved the city money on the salaries that a professional city manager and staff would command.

Some background to this story: the commission form of government was particularly popular over 100 years ago. However, many communities have long shifted to newer forms of government that feature a city manager. One reason for this was to avoid the outsized influence commissioners could have if they had more control over one area. In suburbs, this shift to hiring a city manager often happened in the decades after World War II when both established and new suburbs faced new issues and complexity associated with growth. For example, a suburb like Naperville was swamped with requests for development and moved through the 1950s and 1960s toward more professional city government and urban planning. The post-World War II also featured a movement toward professionalization of tasks in communities that were once simply enough to hand over to trusted local officials. Today, city managers are well-trained officials who often move up the ranks to larger and larger communities as they demonstrate their abilities. Of course, as this article mentions, hiring a city manager and more professionally-trained city employees does cost money. (See this Wikipedia article on the council-manager form of government for more information.)

So will Dixon now move to having more professionals in local government? Part of the appeal of living in a small town is the trust residents and officials have in each other but it will be interesting to see if there are major responses to this breach of trust.

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