Only City’s Top Bureaucrat Gets Transparent Review


Since 2009 the City of Park Ridge has had the most transparent operations of any local governmental unit, by far. That’s because the late Mayor Dave Schmidt fought tooth and nail to make it so. And because the voters wisely elected a majority of aldermen who joined Mayor Dave in that fight.

One of the fruits of that transparency was on display – naturally, given that “on display” is what transparency’s all about – at the City Council COW (Committee Of the Whole) meeting last Monday (April 27) night when the Council conducted its open-session review of City Manager Shawn Hamilton.

Hamilton is the top City employee and its highest paid one. He’s also, as we understand it, the only City employee whom the Council is legally empowered to directly hire, fire, review and compensate.  And as it has done for the past few years, the Council once again conducted his review in open session, with the press present and the videocamera running.

That’s the way government should work: out in the open, in the bright light of day.

According to the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate story about the process (“City manager receives ‘below average’ performance review,” 04.29.15), Hamilton received less than a ringing endorsement of his past year’s performance.  In the pre-Schmidt, pre-transparency years, there would have been no such H-A story because the process would have been hidden from view in closed session, leaving the taxpayers scratching their heads and wondering why the then-city managers were getting their regular raises and benefit increases.

Not only does the transparency of the City’s process give the ordinary taxpayer an up-close-and-personal appreciation for how their top employee performed over the past year, but it also gives them some insight into how their aldermen came up with Hamilton’s rating – because the aldermen’s actual rating sheets were part of the meeting materials posted on the City’s website.  That way, taxpayers can see for themselves what factors went into that rating.

Unfortunately, at its March 5 meeting the Park Ridge Park District Board took a big step backward from last year’s more transparent process for evaluating the District’s top employee, Executive Director Gayle Mountcastle.  Instead of an open-session discussion like last year, the Park Board waited until the end of its lengthy meeting before running into closed session for its 40-minute evaluation of Mountcastle.  The result: another 4% salary boost (from $149,000 to $155,000) after a 4% bump last year and a 7% bump in 2013.

Not surprisingly, the individual Park Board members’ reviews of Mountcastle were not posted on the District’s website, nor does it sound like any Board members except president Mel Thillens actually saw all the written reviews prior to the Board adjourning, lemming-like, into the closed session.

Call it a cowardly retreat from the promise of last year’s more-open process.

That probably shouldn’t have come as a total surprise, however, given that Board president Thillens and several other Board members have consistently displayed no natural instinct for transparency and accountability – other than when they are on the campaign trail, or when they believe they have no other alternative.

But when it comes to treating the taxpayers like mushrooms, nobody does it any better/worse than both of our local school boards. When they review their respective superintendents – Park Ridge-Niles School District 64’s $240,000+ Laurie Heinz, and Maine Twp. H.S. District 207’s $250,000+ Ken Wallace – those boards are so secretive that Edward Snowden would be challenged to sneak a peek.

We’ve heard all the secrecy arguments, most of which are some variation on the “closed sessions let elected officials speak candidly” theme.

Elected officials who need the secrecy of a closed session to speak candidly about the performance of their government unit’s top executive have no business holding public office.

Too bad so many of them still do.

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9 comments so far

Mel just kills me!! As I have said on this blog before, while not in his circle of friends, I have had conversations with Mel and it is clear to me that he is a decent man who cares about PR.

The problem is he seems to have a very short memory about what he said he stood for, and/or he seems to have a very short memory about what he has done in the past that does not match what he now says he stands for.

Case in point, you posted about the PD board going into closed session for a review. It is clear that Mel spear headed a completely closed review process with no transparency what so ever.

I read your post and googled “Mel Thillens” and “transparency”.

“I believe in government transparency”. That is a direct quote from Mel Thillens.

He takes credit for releasing meeting minutes, a good thing, but now he has a completely closed review yielding a 4% raise. If she deserved the raise, that should have been easy to prove in an open review process. How does this fit his “caring about the taxpayer” mantra??

Too many inconsistencies to even keep track of!!!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mel is a fine fellow, but he’s no different than every other of his fellow Park Board members (with the occasional exception of Rick Biagi): give them an opportunity to go into closed session and they’ll scurry off like mice, without question or objection, because they have no innate sense of transparency or why it’s important. If they could hold their meetings in a bunker 100 feet below the Maine Leisure Center with no press or public, that’s where they’d be – just like their fellow travelers at D-64 and D-207.

That’s because they FEAR “The People” – other than their people who they know agree with and support them.

Here’s a question for the class. How many of those taxpayers that Mel cares about so much have received a 15% in salary increases over the last 3 years??

EDITOR’S NOTE: Probably not that many. But in fairness, it’s our understanding that one or more of those raises was predicated on Mountcastle’s quantifiable performance vis-a-vis goals set for her (e.g., the District achieving a $1 M surplus, increased usage, revenue from fees surpassing tax revenue, additional grant funding, etc.), so it’s not just finger-to-the-wind – even if a certain commissioner is rumored to have wanted to throw an additional $10K at Mountcastle just because.

So Dave set the example with transparency and the Park District does not do the same thing with their Executive Director.

Does the library or the two school districts also go into closed session for these type of issues?

Also, it sounds as though close session minutes do become available, eventually, so the information is not completely opaque.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As we understand it, both school districts hide their superintendent evaluations in closed session.

The Library Board also historically has fled into closed session when doing its director reviews. Last year this editor, as a member of the Library Board, raised the issue of an open-session review of the director. But the director opposed it and no other member of that Board supported it. Perhaps this new Board will see otherwise.

What’s your take on the City Manager review? I read the article and then the reviews themselves. No surprise one guy doesn’t like him, just like last year and what I watch on occasion every Monday. But how does one score a zero, based on no goals? If Hamilton is below average, why is he still here?

EDITOR’S NOTE: If the Council set up no “Goals, Proects and Initiatives” for Hamilton because HE failed to provide them, what score should he get other than zero?

We can only assume that Hamilton is still here because: (a) the Council is mindful of his having inherited a mess from his predecessor; and (b) he has scored better in prior years so that this might be viewed as an aberration, as suggested from the fact that Ald. Knight’s zero, by itself, pushed him below the minimum “average” score.

As a taxpayer and resident it is aggravating to watch these elected officials go into closed session any chance they get. As I understand the Open Meetings Act, they do not have to go into closed session ever, so every time they do so they are affirmatively choosing to hide things from the public. Grrrrrr.


“Closed sessions let elected officials speak candidly”.

Are we saying that elected officials don’t speak candidly in open sessions?

If so, can we trust what they say about other topics in open session?

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Politicians” rarely, if ever, speak “candidly” in public, which is why we hate “politicians.” But the term “candidly” as used in the context of closed-session evaluations of senior staff means “harshly” – because too many of those officials are more concerned about the bureaucrat’s feelings than the taxpayers’ right to know. And in a few instances, it’s also the way those officials can hide their own stupidity and obsequiousness toward those bureaucrats – as well as their support and encouragement of big non-performance based raises.

I agree with your comment about Thillens: nice guy but tries to be a politician and make everybody (or at least the squeaky wheels) happy.
You are also right about too many of these politicians treating these top bureaucrats with kid gloves instead of holding them to account for their performance.

I appreciate that everyone thinks I’m such a nice guy. There are a couple misconceptions about the review process we followed. It certainly wasn’t “a completely closed review process with no transparency what so ever.”

We held it over two sessions and made all the supporting documents (salary calculation, Goals and Self Evaluation, Current and Proposed Agreement) public documents before they were discussed. We discussed salary benchmarks in open session. There was opportunity to speak in both open and closed session about the Executive Director revue, and I did. Should we eliminate any closed session discussion? Maybe. But a completely public, fully honest, detailed job review, which includes good dialogue with the reviewee, in which every criticism and compliment is available for review by the executive director’s peers in the industry and the employees she oversees is what we attempted last year. It didn’t exactly result in the kind of review that is helpful to the progress of the employee, or included the type of communication that allowed both sides to fully understand the and quantify the successes and failures over the previous year. The majority of the board was interested in trying to allow for some of that conversation to take place in closed session. Was it too much in closed? I think it turned out to be. I also think it was certainly better than setting up an evaluation based on goals that no one ever wrote, saw, or approved (I’m looking at you City Council).

I said in open session, to the newspapers, and to anyone who would ask, my opinion of Gayle’s performance. Here it is again:

My goals for the Park District are to keep the taxes low, keep usage up, and stay within budget. We haven’t raised taxes in two years, the paid usage is at an all-time high in both people and dollars, and even before any grant monies came in, we had over $1,000,000.00 in budget surplus. Not one unit of government I live under can say the same or close to it. Gayle and the team she leads were instrumental in all of that.

By those benchmarks and the method we use for determining raises, Gayle deserved to be compensated for her success.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We appreciate your willingness to engage in this forum. And you make some valid points.

However, we would expect a bit more explanation/clarification of how your “completely public, fully honest, detailed job review” from last year “didn’t exactly result in the kind of review that is helpful to the progress of the employee,” etc. In other words, exactly WHY are you claiming it didn’t work?

We just looked, again, at the Board packet for the 03.05.15 Board meeting and could find NO individual Board member rating sheets for Director Mountcastle – nor are any even mentioned in Human Resource Director Diane DiGangi’s March 2, 2015 memo re Ms. Mountcastle’s compensation.

And at approx. the 3:50:37 mark of the meeting video, you acknowledge that you were the only person on the Board who had actually seen all of the ratings sheets. So if you expect taxpayers to find such information in scavenger-hunt style, please provide some decent clues for us AND for your fellow Board members to follow.

Finally, saying AFTER THE FACT that perhaps “too much” of that evaluation discussion took place in closed session sounds like just more of that “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission” horsebleep politician-speak that has become so popular in recent years. If you really believe in “transparency” and “accountability,” actually making the motion to go into closed session (at the 3:51:35 mark of the video) is a strange way of showing it.

You are either for or against transparency. There are arguments to be made on either side but I would expect elected officials to at least be consistent. You appear to want to hold both positions at your convenience. It’s kind of like riling up the troops about taxes but then saying it’s only 70 bucks!

The other part of your reply that frosts me is the “the majority of the board was interested……..” comment. When the board increased the tax super Mel rode his white horse all the way back from Orlando to save the day, right?. So don’t try and dilute your role in this by spreading the blame to the entire board.

EDITOR’S NOTE: It appears this commentator is addressing these remarks directly to Mr. Thillens’ comments.

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