Monday, September 26, 2011

The Mayor, the Council and Accountability

Th public deserves to know what is happening at city hall. The WBLS debacle raises serious questions about how the taxpayers money is being spent. The following are my thoughts and positions on this subject. It is meant as an explanation of the need to balance the demand for accountability with the need for restraint. I am limited in what I say in order to protect the city from lawsuits.

Until very recently, I tried to approach the WBLS problem assertively in private but with restraint in public. I believe it is a council persons responsibility to hold the Mayor and administration accountable for questionable practices. I was in favor of investigating from the beginning. I disagreed with those council colleagues who favored investigation of legal wrongdoing only. I felt and still feel that the Council must hold itself and the Mayor accountable for frivolous, wasteful and self serving expenditures. WBLS always seemed to fit this description in my eyes. I favored hiring the attorney originally proposed for the investigation, Jackie Drakeford. She was not hired because of accusations of a conflict of interest but I wanted to proceed with her because I know from experience that she has integrity and would not allow self interest or any interests outside those of Plainfield to interfere with a thorough and fair investigation. But it was not to be. This caused a delay in beginning the investigation but thanks to four council members, we persisted in hiring an attorney to go forward. My opinions expressed above were stated in executive sessions because I felt a need to show restraint in public.

There are two considerations that led to my exercise of restraint. The Mayor, any Mayor, deserves to be respected for her position and be given the benefit of the doubt within reason. More importantly, any negative publicity for Plainfield is adding fuel to the fire. Transparency and openness must always win in the end but pulling punches is sometimes a good thing in the short term. I promised myself before taking public office that I would not speak in anger against people hurting Plainfield unless a greater good is served. I have mostly been able to restraint myself from public venting (which is different from specific criticism coupled with constructive actions for improvement). Some of my constituents see this as a weakness but an effective elected official is one who does more than state problems and fan the flames of citizens frustrations.

One example of using restraint to advantage was in my second year as a school board member. We had just gone through a bitter and divisive election and the faction I belonged to was now the majority faction. The board decided to do a national search for a Superintendent. Of course we were divided on how to proceed. Instead of fighting through the search process as previous boards had done, we decided to have our fights in private. This did not serve the public curiosity but the public good was served. We were able to attract qualified candidates, one of whom, Larry Leveritt, was hired. He was certainly more qualified than any superintendents we have had since and he did more for the Plainfield schools than anyone in recent times.

I believe that if the school board behaved as was the tradition, we would not have found qualified candidates. I fear that Mayor Robinson-Briggs' style has led Plainfield to experience a dearth of good candidates for key management positions at city hall. When Plainfield Council members are in the spotlight regarding situations like these, it's important to strike a balance between "tell it like it is" and "put the best foot forward".

So why I am writing this now, more than a year after the anti-gang forum involving WBLS? For me the assertiveness - restraint balance has changed. By refusing to cooperate with the Council's attorney and trying to avoid the subpoena, Mayor Robinson-Briggs has pushed things beyond the bounds of ethics, reason and accountability. And the subsequent media coverage has once again put Plainfield government in a bad light. There is not much of a down-side for Plainfield to tell it like it is at this point.

Ultimately the public deserves to know what is happening at city hall. There are legal reasons to temporarily withhold information from the public if it serves the public interest to do so. There are aspects of this case that have not seen the light of day yet but they will. There are times when an elected official holds back information or even opinions for reasons not understood by constituents. And those constituents can get frustrated by a perceived lack of commitment or resolve by council members. That is part of the bargain you make when you run for office. But it all comes out in the wash. Or most of it anyway. And the true test of the Plainfield City Council will be not that we found wrongdoing but what actions we will take to deal with it effectively.


Anonymous said...

So how much money are we paying for the investigation? Can we say with true conviction, that the charges brought against the mayor will result in a criminal indictment? If you believe this is a criminal offense then just refer this to the county prosecutor. If you want to say she breeched some ethical laws then say it and lets be done. We could be spending as much for the investigation as we are for the WBLS event. That is a double waste.

Cory Storch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cory Storch said...

Dear anonymous - no charges have been made against the Mayor or anyone as of yet. This is an objective investigation, not a witch-hunt. Criminal indictments would come out of evidence from the investigation which, because of the Mayors lack of cooperation, is taking much longer than necessary. Aside from finding criminal wrong-doing, my reading of the City Charter empowers the Council to take personnel action for wrong-doing that is related to ethics or performance. These actions could apply to employees but not the Council or Mayor.

(My previous comment was deleted becauseI found a typo.)

Anonymous said...

Cory, I think this is a thoughtful post. The ethical lapses should concern every Plainfield resident.


Hold'Em Accountable said...

Mr. Storch,

The same type of waste and abuse has been going on for years. The PMUA is notorious for this type of behavior. Quite honestly, the council typically sits on the sidelines and allows the taxpayers to be taken advantage of. Reform is long overdue both at City Hall and PMUA. Hopefully, the council will step to the plate on both issues, demand accountability, hold people responsible, and refer any wrongdoings to the attorney general. As an elected official you owe at least that much to the residents.