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GARY — The new chief of staff for Gary's mayor hopes to provide residents more insight into the city government.

Dayna Bennett, 46, said city officials are looking to make more information available not only to the city staff, but to the public.

"One of the things I think we struggle with is data management, and to help everybody from the mayor on down to make good decisions, you need data, you need the right information," she said.

Bennett started as chief of staff to Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson in August. She is working on the city's procedures to monitor its large fleet of cars, including tracking conditions and insurance needs.

In regard to putting municipal data in front of the public, Bennett said city officials have looked at several companies that have put together open government platforms.

"So much of the statistical data that we track can be on a website that anyone can access and kind of have an idea how city government runs and whether we are meeting commitments and promises that we've made to the city," she said.

The information could include an online checkbook of Gary's expenditures that some communities across the country make available to the public.

"We are looking at a complete transparent approach," Bennett said.

The need for transparency was raised by some of the candidates during the last mayoral election.

Bennett said she has spoken to several companies about how long it has taken other cities to get everything online. She said most cities the size of Gary have taken at least two years, but some information will be put online during that period.

"It will happen as we're able to gather data in a way that's not resource intensive and in a way that we can ensure its accuracy, and as we do that, department by department, we'll begin to load data to this platform," she said.

Sanitary district duties, too

The city's former Deputy Mayor B.R. Lane, who at one time served as interim director of the Gary/Chicago International Airport, left the city last spring. Freeman-Wilson said at the time that she would not be replacing Lane until after the primary election last May.

Bennett, like Lane, is budgeted to be paid $80,039 from the city and $18,960 from the Gary Sanitary District, but she said she will not be as heavily involved with the airport as her predecessor and will not receive a salary from that entity. She said there are areas of shared responsibilities between the city and sanitary district. For instance, during Monday's winter storm, she said she was coordinating trucks from the city's General Services Division and Gary Sanitary District to combat the icy conditions.

By comparison, Crown Point Chief of Staff Greg Falkowski is scheduled to make up to $78,000 in 2016, which includes money from the mayor's office along with water, wastewater and stormwater divisions. East Chicago Chief of Staff Emiliano Perez is eligible to receive up to $3,030.58 bi-weekly, which works out to $78,795 over 52 weeks, based on the salary range for that position.

Hammond Chief of Staff Mark McLaughlin is scheduled to make $98,775, with the money for his salary coming from the Hammond Water Works Department. 

Prior to being hired as chief of staff, Bennett worked as chief deputy with the Calumet Township trustee's office from January to the end of August. The township position paid $70,000 annually. Prior to that she was an insurance agent, and before that Bennett said she worked in project management, process development and re-engineering with private business.

Seeking to make a difference

Bennett, who is a lifelong resident of the city, said she thinks her extensive background in operational management and process management is why the mayor was interested in her as a candidate for the chief of staff position. Reviewing policies and procedures is one of the key areas of her job, according to Bennett.

She noted some of the city's policies and procedures are outdated. For example, Bennett said, city employees involved in an accident with a city vehicle were supposed to appear before an accident review board made up of city staff. She said there is no longer an accident review board, and it didn't make sense for Gary staff to review accidents.

Currently, they are considering a new policy that possibly would have police perform the reviews. She said one of the things the mayor is depending on her for is making sure all the city's policies are updated and accurate, and that contracts the city negotiates are in line with those policies.

Bennett said her first three weeks on the job was spent almost exclusively in meetings trying to learn what everyone was working on. She said those meetings made it obvious that the city needed a central repository for much of the information, such as the various grant programs.

The city was able to get a lot of the information on the number of properties the city owns from Lake County. Bennett said information such as population density will help the city make service delivery decisions. 

"We're looking at how do we better align infrastructure to our population," she said, citing as an example that the city would want to have sidewalks where they would be most needed. The city also would use the information when making decisions about where commercial ventures, such as grocery stores, are needed.

Bennett said the job has been far more rewarding than any other job she has had.

"You can see when you accomplish something here it impacts people that you live next to," she said, "and what other job gives you that opportunity?"

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Ed has been with The Times since January 2014. He previously covered government affairs for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida. Prior to Scripps, he was with the Chicago Regional Bureau of Copley News Service.