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Jeff Ward: If an Ethics Investigation Takes Place in a Vacuum, Does it Make Sound?

Does anyone really trust this process?

Whenever Rick Nagel and I engage in our frequent journalistic debates, we sometimes end up commiserating about how getting a call-back from City Hall can be tougher than trying to pull chicken teeth.

While I certainly understand municipal folks’ reticence to talk to inquisitive folks like me, stonewalling only makes us more inclined to pull harder. But even if we didn’t, silence leads to public speculation and the public's speculative conclusions are almost always worse than the truth.

The recent Geneva ethics investigation—or apparent lack of one—is a prime example of how this phenomenon plays out.

Of course, I'm talking about the fallout from Mayor Kevin Burns “inadvertent” usage of his city sponsored e-mail account for campaign purposes. Jon Zahm, a political operative linked to Burns' county chair opponent, Chris Lauzen, FOIA’d those e-mails and made them public.

As you might expect, the mayor’s opponents are having a field day with this one, as they stand squarely on their soapboxes proclaiming this abuse of city-funded communications is worse than

But as I already noted on a previous Patch comment, on the 1-to-10 scale of political atrocities, this particular offense weighs in somewhere around a minus-5.

C’mon! It’s not like the mayor was hunkered down in his City Hall office leaning over his keyboard sending scores of illegal e-mails. Most of the incoming messages were actually directed to his campaign mailbox, and those infamous errant responses clearly came from a phone that likely defaulted to the incorrect e-mail address.

Not only that, but saying he used city resources to pull off this “crime” is a wee bit of a stretch. There ain’t an Internet service provider on the planet that charges for e-mail by the pound, and I can’t remember the last time my Blackberry burst into flames from the friction of sending too many e-mails.

It’s the political picture those e-mails portrayed that interested me far more than the act of sending them.

Ethicswise? Yes! It’s a violation. But when you look out over that vast landscape of government indiscretions, this one ain’t nothing more than a pimple on a mosquito’s behind. That said, the fact that it isn’t a big deal doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed.

Considering the mayor’s propensity to , ducking should never be an option when it’s your turn to take the hit.

But we have a couple of problems here. And the first one is, the city’s ethics ordinance is written such that the council can’t take any action. All ethics complaints have to come in the form of a letter from a Geneva resident. Only then does the clock start to tick in regard to the fact-finding and conclusion process.

This has to change!

The ethics process is too onerous for the average citizen to undertake, and a government body should be granted the privilege of calling out their own to avoid the dreaded appearance of impropriety.

And it took a citizen broaching the subject at the March 5 City Council meeting before we even learned an investigation was under way. When I say “we,” I mean it was the first time some of the aldermen learned these details as well.

The second problem is the Ethic Commission, appointed by the mayor and approved by the council, is chaired by City Attorney Chuck Radovich, who also contributed to Burns’ campaign coffers, as has EC member Tim Moran.

Ethics Commission members should not make a practice of writing checks to the folks they may someday have to investigate.

So what we know now is, Radovich rightly recused by turning the matter over to City Manager Mary McKittrick who turned the matter over to an unnamed private Batavia attorney for further review.

Alderman Dean Kilburg’s response to the citizen inquiry was, “This process has moved forward, it hasn’t been ignored, and I think in due course, the community will be satisfied (with the process).”

Fifth Ward Alderman Craig Maladra said the issue would be addressed “deliberately, openly and quickly.”

In other words, the whole lot of ‘em said a whole lot of nothing, and Alderman Maladra’s definition of the word “openly” vastly differs from my own.

Second Ward Alderman Richard Marks did ask the council for an investigation timeline, only to be shunned like a leper at a nudist colony.

And my experience was no different. Two e-mails and two calls to Ms. McKittrick (and a single e-mail to the mayor) requesting the name of the Batavia attorney and some sort of off the record chronology were ignored much like a Lindsay Lohan probation order.

Of course, this silly silence makes it look like they’re trying to postpone the outcome until after the March 20 primary. It makes it look like they’re waiting until the whole thing blows over. It also makes it look like they’re resorting to some sort of collusion to skew the results.

The simple irony is, had they assertively addressed this issue and lightly slapped the mayor on the wrist for his minor infraction, the fat lady would’ve already sung. The story would be well on its way to becoming yesterday’s news.

But instead of taking that simple and direct route, here I am writing about it again—and, sadly, it might be time for some FOIAs.

Some folks never learn!

Bob McQuillan March 14, 2012 at 02:35 PM
This would have ended on day one if Mayor Burns would have said, "I sorry, I made a mistake." He refused to admit he was wrong and blamed it on a snafu. Since I was the citizen that addressed the city council, I sent the following e-mail to the city administrator two days ago. Geneva Ethics Commission Action From:Bob McQuillan To: mmckittrick@geneva.il.us Mary As a follow-up to last Monday's City Council meeting could you please provide the following information: *the names of the current members of the commission *any scheduled meetings within the next month (date, time & place) *expected date that the commission will hold a public meeting concerning the *announced investigation of Mayor Burns' use of city supplied services for personal gain *method of communication planned to inform the public of the investigation of Mayor Burns' use of city supplied services for personal gain. Why has it taken two days to hear back if “This process has moved forward, it hasn’t been ignored, and I think in due course, the community will be satisfied with the process” and will be done “deliberately, openly and quickly.” This issue has hung a dark cloud over Geneva and must be handled in a manner that allows the taxpayers to know exactly what happened. What other personal e-mails were sent to family, friends, etc. The ethics ordinance lays out clear time lines on how the process must be handled, that timeline should be followed. Lets do it right.
Peter Fizor March 14, 2012 at 05:42 PM
For the sake of Geneva & the City Council lets put this to bed. There appears to be no financial gain by any individual, there are a lot of more important topics to deal with.
Bob McQuillan March 14, 2012 at 07:15 PM
For the sake of the taxpayers of Geneva, lets do a real investigation so that we can trust all city employees are following the rules. Is this and the alleged credit card misuse just the tip of the iceberg? At this point, no one knows the answer to that question.
Charles Emout March 14, 2012 at 08:37 PM
Jeff rightly identifies several flaws in the Geneva Ethics Ordinance as written, and I assume these flaws are contained in many similar ordinances that have been passed by other units of local government in Illinois. While these common flaws by no means suggest that this was done "by design," it does raise the question "Can a ruling that's fair and just to all parties truly be rendered when so many intermingled relationships are allowed to exist?" (Again speaking of these types of Ethics Ordinances in general - not to the Geneva situation specifically) Given the fact that Illinois is "The land of 10,000 units of taxing government" (at least it seems that way) I don't know that a truly "pure" system will ever exist, but certainly ordinances like these can be improved upon. Restricting campaign donations between members of these ethics commissions & those they may be charged with investigating would be a good start! While I suppose an argument could be made that it's a commission members right (as part of free speech) to support a candidate of their choosing, I would hope that maintaining one's personal integrity would be of greater importance (similar to a Judge). Beyond that, open-thoughtful-expedience should be paramount. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of a private drawn out investigation is the erosion of the presumption of innocence for the accused, and a wrongly placed "guilt by association" (or cloud) hanging over the head of the body as a whole.
Terry Flanagan March 16, 2012 at 04:42 PM
It seems ridiculous to me that the city attorney should have to recuse himself in this case. These types of situations are bound to occur in a small town where everybody has some sort of past or present relationship. That's part of the charm of a small town and something we should cherish. We should merely acknowledge those relationships exist, offer our opinion, and let people decide for themselves whether those opinions have any merit. I have to acknowledge my relationship to Dorothy when writing here. It doesn't mean I'm speaking for Dorothy or the city council, despite what some people may think. But we shouldn't remain silent for fear of what people will think. Anyway, if we rely solely on connections to evaluate people's statements we're supposedly only six degrees (of Kevin Bacon) from invalidating everything anyone says.

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