Nothing to see, move along

Nothing to see, move along

A two-year fight with Champaign city officials over two emails just doesn't make sense unless the real issue was about avoiding accountability.

Now the public knows why Champaign city officials, Mayor Don Gerard and council members were so hellbent on resisting a state law directing council members to make public city-related emails and text messages they sent and received during public meetings.

They did it because they had virtually nothing to turn over. What better reason to wage a time- and resource-consuming, two-year legal battle?

That's what the powers-that-be in city government — everyone from City Manager Dorothy David, City Attorney Fred Stavins and Mayor Gerard on down — want and hope the public believes.

Well, pardon our skepticism, but we are, to put it mildly, unconvinced.

It is, of course, unthinkable that appointed or elected officials would ever utter an untruth, play dumb or obscure the facts in a way that would give the public a false impression.

But they're not above kidding the public a little bit; that's why the city's decision to turn over just two texts after a two-year fight seems too clever by half.

Indeed, we suspect that City Attorney Stavins intentionally chose not to inquire if council members had emails and texts to turn over, intentionally chose not to advise council members of their obligation to preserve these public records and intentionally chose to string the whole dispute out as long as possible in the hope the whole thing would blow over.

When it didn't, Stavins was probably absolutely stunned, shocked, agog and agape to discover that he'd been fighting the whole time to protect nothing. Well, knock me over with a feather.

Some may perceive this kind of lawyering as clever; we consider it deceitful, wilfully evasive of the applicable law and contemptuous of a municipal lawyer's obligation to the public that pays his salary.

More than that, however, it represents a mind-set of a city administration that pays lip service to the concept of transparency while going out of its way to shield itself from anything that might be embarrassing.

Emblematic of that approach is Stavins' insistence that the state's freedom-of-information law is filled with incomprehensible ambiguities that he just can't understand that must be litigated to death to be deciphered.

First, he didn't understand that the law treats the disputed texts and emails as public records. He still didn't understand after the Illinois attorney general's office told him they were. He still didn't understand after a circuit judge told him they were, and he continues to express bafflement about the law's meaning even after the appellate court spelled it out. He says he's waiting for state officials to provide further clarification.

We suspect when and if they do, he'll still be scratching his head in confusion.

After all, the attorney general's office 'splained it all to him, and he professed to still be hopelessly lost as to what the law means.

Further bad faith is demonstrated by Stavins' rejection of the assertion that setting a few rules for council members would do no good. Can't tell Mayor Gerard and council members not to text and email during public meetings.

"That's not a solution," Stavins said.

Really. Why not? Such a rule, assuming it's followed by our slippery elected officials, would definitely solve the problem by disposing of the issue.

So would another rule directing council members to preserve applicable texts and email because they are public records under the law.

Stavins and City Manager David want to turn this issue into the equivalent of rocket science when it's really basic mathematics. That way it's easier for them to profess that they just don't know anything about anything and, therefore, can't be expected to respond in a forthright manner to the next FOIA request.

David and Stavins need to be reminded that the taxpayers provide their salaries and their lavish pensions. Their job isn't to protect elected officials from the consequences of ill-conceived and ill-timed communications by feigning ignorance about their public responsibilities.

Members of the city administration and city council may think they acted cleverly by escaping publication of their emails and texts. In reality, they did themselves no favors by launching a two-year fight and then announcing, "Oh, never mind."

Character counts in public life, and the character on display here has been decidedly unimpressive.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion