Shut Up

The Setup

For nearly all of the past 20 years, my day job has been about providing services for adults with developmental, physical, intellectual and/or mental disabilities. One of the challenges is to keep vulnerable people safe. We sometimes fail. Abuse and neglect sometimes occur no matter how good the service agency is, so what counts is how it deals with these incidents when (not if) they happen.

Too often, the response from the higher-ups is a reflexive instinct to cover it up. Top management sets the tone.

I was still quite green when first encountering an incident of abuse at a group home. A young woman returned from a holiday visit with family and complained that her legs hurt. When we checked them we found huge, deep purple bruises that had been inflicted, she said, with steel-toed boots. I began phoning supervisors to tell them that we were taking her to the emergency room. My immediate supervisor was ready to take action, but the boss of my boss expressed reservations.

“Are you sure we need to do that?” he asked. “That’ll open up a can of worms.”

Thus began my second, parallel career as a can opener.

Those who open the cans of worms–the watchdogs, the squeaky wheels, the whistleblowers and other truth tellers–know that this can be not only a thankless job but also one of the most exhausting. It takes a lot of time to find the truth, deliver the truth, and re-deliver until the correct response emerges; and every step of the way, arrayed against the “openers” are defenders of status quo, self-interested nest-feathering fiefdom-builders, hacks who just don’t want to be bothered and other practitioners of the art of Shut Up.

When it comes to the 3rd Ward smear campaign the “opening” credit must first be awarded to the professionals at DeKalb’s Daily Chronicle, who stayed with the story until they’d wrung out all they could. If not for that coverage, there would have been no public outcry. Things worked the way they should.

But then the outcry reached City Hall and got hung up there.

At this point you should know that a couple of us met with City Clerk Donna Johnson last week, following her June 16 invitation. Johnson asked during the meeting why the 3rd Ward campaign was still such an issue. I tried to explain that we haven’t been heard yet.

The Shut Up

Three citizens spoke out about the 3rd Ward alderman-elect’s lies at the April 23 meeting. Only the city attorney and then-alderman Steve Kapitan responded. Another city resident spoke at the May 14 meeting, three more at the May 29 meeting, another at the June 11 meeting and so on. Not only were most of these comments greeted with absolute silence–except for Wogen’s delivering a “let’s move on” message to his constituent–but it was also discovered that the minutes of these meetings (intentionally or not) were incomplete, biased and posted late. Some of the citizen speakers were moved to write letters to the editor [find them here and here] and were more or less reprimanded by the city clerk at the end of the July 16 meeting for making public criticisms without checking with her first. Others kept busy filing complaints.

Such an escalation is predictable. The communication process is not complete until the receiver acknowledges and shows some sort of understanding of the sender’s message. Unless the sender of the message is in a state of learned helplessness, being ignored often results in behavioral escalation, especially when the message is about need. In this case the need is to see justice happen. What’s more, the participants in the post-election activities are people who not only feel that they can make a difference at the local level but (with the exception of the petition drivers, who were new to the scene and got Shut Up) are veterans to the process who know how long such a campaign can take. Perhaps the powerlessness many of us feel lately when it comes to state and national politics also boosted the ballyhoo.

What Should Have Happened

If the City Council and City Clerk’s office had confronted the fallout from the 3rd Ward campaign misbehavior, they would not still be hearing from us three months after the election. As I see it, possible actions (in no particular order of preference or pragmatism) include(d):

  • Victor Wogen files campaign contribution information with the Illinois State Board of Elections
  • Victor Wogen makes a real apology
  • Victor Wogen resigns
  • City Council makes a statement repudiating underhanded campaign tactics
  • City Council thanks each citizen commenter for taking the time to state his/her views
  • City Council adds discussion of an election recall ordinance to the meeting agenda
  • Mayor establishes an ad hoc committee to craft a “clean campaign pledge” for future aldermanic candidates
  • City Clerk, City Manager and City Attorney explain, via press release or press conference, how FOIA requests are handled, including exemptions and privacy protection
  • There’s an argument floating about that aldermen can’t publicly comment on the situation because the citizens’ comments are “not actionable” and that they “have to work with the guy.” Nonsense. Victor Wogen is the one who damaged the working relationship with other Council members. City residents are looking at City Council, Clerk and staff with a distrust that did not exist before and the only fix is straight talk.

    Or do the feelings of Victor Wogen and Donna Johnson count more than those of us plain folk? Maybe that’s it–it’s certainly consistent with the view that citizens who speak at City Council meetings nowadays only do it to get on TV, which has been suggested several times recently. The joes who brave the intimidating rows of poker faces upon the dais and along the wall, who carefully compose and rehearse and time their statements, might well be shocked at the level of respect afforded their efforts. It stands a couple rungs under what one might expect from people who supposedly work for us.

    What’s Next

    It’s clear that unless we suffer collective amnesia, Victor Wogen will never hold public office in this city again. Meanwhile he doesn’t get to fly under the radar.

    When it comes to the city clerk’s office the problem is a bit more complex, as it is at least as much about the nature of the job as it is about the individual. The city clerk is sole judge of what is included or not in the public record of city business no matter who occupies the spot. (Suddenly I understand better the push for changing the clerk’s position from an elected position to an appointed one.)

    There are several steps that might be taken and each requires a bit more use of available technology but not at high cost. One 3rd Warder has suggested that the clerk post draft minutes online right after meetings to get feedback up until they are approved. You can see here that many cities use this method, typically distinguishing draft minutes from approved minutes by putting the word DRAFT in the headers and footers.

    Another suggestion, made at citybarbs, was this:

    Considering the signficant investment taxpayers have made in the equipment, staffing and outsourcing to produce the digital video broadcasting of City meetings there is no excuse for not having accurate, up-to-date minutes.

    A few clicks on a mouse and the audio files can be separated from the digital recording of the meetings. A few more clicks and speech-to-text translations can be made. With use of a macroscript this can all be automated.

    There would be copy editing required, but if the spirit of open, honest government is genuine then citizens would be allowed to see “red line” editing as it occurs.

    Other ideas include burning DVDs of meeting broadcasts and making them widely available and/or uploading the meeting audio.

    However the meeting minutes are handled, another important step is to place them into a keyword-searchable archive. Currently one year’s worth of city manager’s notes, meeting agendas and minutes are available on the Agendas page at the city website and a website search will yield those from 2004 and 2005, but there’s no access right now to the first half of 2006 and the contents of these documents are not searchable. Incidentally, according to Johnson the meeting minutes are already searchable in-house.

    IMO one more step that needs to be considered is to allow the clerk to upload her stuff at the city website so s/he is not so dependent on the Information Technology (IT) department to meet deadlines.

    Johnson has not sought any of these changes because she says she has not detected any demand for them and she is dead-set against the online draft recommendation. However, Johnson stated that she would not oppose efforts to make publically available DVDs of meetings and a searchable online archive of the minutes in her possession. It follows that we need to demonstrate demand, ask Mayor and Council to take up the topic, and seek a clerk candidate who embraces these newfangled ideas.