Sanitized For Your Deception


Back in the day (the 1950s, ‘60s and maybe even the early ‘70s), a traveler entering the bathroom of his quarters at the Holiday Inn or most other hotels and motels would find his allotment of two glass water tumblers wrapped in a kind of glassine paper, and a sash across the toilet seat.  Emblazoned on each of them was the legend: “Sanitized for your Protection.” 

That era may have passed for the overnight lodging industry, but sanitization of a different type is still being practiced by some of the people who run local government.  Instead of sanitizing glassware and toilet seats, however, they sanitize the information that goes out to us taxpaying and voting citizens by treating “no news” as “good news,” “good news” as “great news,” and either burying “bad news” altogether or spinning it into “no news” whenever possible.

Take a publication like “The Spokesman” – the City’s version of Pravda and Izvestia.  Virtually everything in The Spokesman has been sanitized and spun to such a degree that, if you relied only on it for your news about City government, you’d swear you were living in Pleasantville.  But at least its name is accurate, because it truly is a “spokesman” – for the mayor and the bureaucrats who run our city.

A less visible yet more insidious sanitization, however, goes on with the official record of City business: the city council (and committee) meeting minutes.  As explained at page 31 [pdf] of Atty. General Lisa Madigan’s “Guide To The Illinois Open Meetings Act,” that Act requires that meeting minutes “include, but not be limited to” certain specific information about when and where the meeting was held, which members of the public body were present and absent, and a summary of discussion “on all matters proposed, deliberated or decided, and a record of any votes taken.” 

Clearly, meeting minutes are not intended to be a verbatim transcript of everything that was said in a meeting.  They must, however, be accurate.  And when they report matters beyond what is required to be reported under IOMA (i.e., those matters that fall into the “not be limited to” category), they need to do so in a way that is fair and not misleading.  Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

For example, if you were at the May 5th City Council meeting, or read about it in the local newspapers or in the blogs (PublicWatchdog’s “The ‘Toxic’ Administration Of Mayor Howard Frimark” or Park Ridge Underground’s “In The Spotlight”), you probably remember that meeting as the one where Mayor Howard “Let’s Make A Deal” Frimark “welcomed” new City Manager James Hock and his wife by telling him and everyone else in the Council chambers that he (Frimark) preferred at least one other candidate who subsequently became disinterested in the position due to a “toxic” environment created, in part, by one alderman’s disclosure of “confidential” information and by “the ugly blogs.”  

But pages 8 and 9 of the “Draft” minutes [pdf] for that meeting (which reportedly were approved this past Monday night) reveal that Frimark’s diatribe has been spun into: “Mayor Frimark spent a few moments explaining the circumstances that he believed hindered the recommendation of a new City Manager.”  And Frimark’s expressed preference for another candidate is replaced with: “Mayor Frimark proudly introduced Mr. James Hock….”

The city employee able to spin this particular dross into gold?  None other than long-time City Clerk Betty Henneman, who once responded to a complaint about the content of the minutes by saying: “We try to make all our elected officials look their best.”  Where she came up with that goal is anybody’s guess, but we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that it probably wasn’t from the Illinois Attorney General or the Better Government Association; and it certainly wasn’t from us here at PublicWatchdog.

Another problem we have with those May 5 minutes can be found at page 2 [pdf], which contains what appear to be out-of-the-blue “disclosures” by Frimark and three aldermen concerning affiliations with certain community organizations.  The significance of those disclosures is puzzling (kind of like in the old comedy routine where the sportscaster announces: “This partial score just in: Ohio State – 21.”) unless you happened to notice, on page 1 of those minutes, that each of the disclosed organizations received money from the City budget.

Such disclosures could be greatly improved by adding the reason why the affiliation is relevant (such as “Mayor Frimark disclosed that his wife is on the Board of Directors of the Kalo Foundation, which is receiving $5,000 from the City’s 2008-09 budget.”).  And it might be a tad more “kosher” if those disclosures were made before the Council members making them actually voted to approve those expenditures, rather than afterward.

Frankly, we here at PublicWatchdog prefer the extra transparency that comes from minutes that contain more than the bare-bones information required under IOMA.  But that transparency is undermined when the extra information is sanitized to make it misleading, or when it turns the meeting minutes into propaganda intended to make some official or other “look their best.” 

6 comments so far

If elected officials want to look their best, I would suggest a day at the spa. The City Clerk could help that cause by providing referrals, but I would hope that would be the end of the City Clerk’s effort on that point!

I do have to ask though, is this all that big a deal when we have other sources of reporting for the events that took place? The newspapers and the blogs?

Yeah, it’s a big deal.

If Betty’s job is to take and publish accurate minutes of the events of any meetings then that’s what she should do. And for her to have said that she / they try to make the city officials look their best is pathetic.

And to imply that that we have other sources… what?, the Herald Advocate or the PR Journal, boarders on stupid. I was at the Monday night meeting the night Howard “welcomed” Hock. While the papers picked up on the stupidity coming out of Howard’s mouth as he “welcomed” Hock there was soooooooo much more that they just ignored and they do that every week. Those two papers do not cover even half of what goes on at City Council meetings, so God knows what they do at the “less” important ones. And while the blogs do a way better job than the papers, even they do not cover everything.

If a citizen wants to hit the city’s website to find out what transpired at any city meeting where minutes are required they should be able to do so confident that they will get a full and truthful set of minutes… warts and all.

To Sunshine – have you ever tried to look up something on either the Advocate’s website a couple of months after the article appeared? Good luck! And if you do find it, you have to pay for it.

Another reason for televising meetings. I have to imagine that some of these clowns – like the mayor, for example – might not act up quite as much if they were being televised. And if they did anyway, the public who can’t make it to the meeting can still see and hear for themselves what kind of things their representatives are saying and doing supposedly on our behalf.

Here we go again. Is it THAT blinkin’ tough to just report stuff accurately??? Instead of Betty H trying to make elected officials look good, we’d be better off seeing just what kind of bozos some of them really are.

Has anybody ever run against Betty Henneman?

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