URBANA — Urbana Alderman Charlie Smyth violated the city's municipal code by using the city council chambers for a political news conference, Republican John Bambenek charged Friday.
Bambenek, a candidate for the state Senate, attended Smyth's conference Friday morning where the Democrat criticized his opponent, Gordy Hulten, for not allowing same-day grace period voting. The press conference was held in the city council chambers, which was decorated with "Charlie Smyth for County Clerk" signs as well as a banner.
"It's clear he was campaigning and talking about the differences between him and the county clerk in matters of public policy," Bambenek said at an impromptu news conference on the public sidewalk in front of the Urbana City Building. "He could have had that press conference anywhere in town that he wanted. He could have had a press conference on the sidewalk in front if he had wanted."
"When you are using your own governmental office to have a press conference, that's beyond the line," Bambenek said. "You don't see county board members having political press conferences in the county board chambers. You're not going to see any candidate for the state Legislature having a political press conference in the state Capitol. There are some things you don't do."
But Urbana Assistant City Attorney Curt Borman said he didn't think Smyth violated the city ordinance by using the council chambers.
"That kind of ordinance is for things like misusing the city's email or fax machine or stamps for political purposes," Borman said. "That's how I read the statute."
He said he's not sure what will happen as a result of Friday's events.
"It's not up to me to say. No one has asked me to do anything," he said.
Article X of the Urbana city code, titled "City Officials and Employee Ethics and Political Activity," prohibits certain political activity by officials.
"No elected official, employee, citizen appointee shall intentionally misappropriate any City property or resources by engaging in any prohibited political activity for the benefit of any campaign for elective office or any political organization," reads Section 2-203 of Article X.
"If it's a violation, it's really unintentional," Smyth said. "The city clerk (Phyllis Clark) told me I could do it. I know political meetings and press conferences like this have been held there before.
"It's on city property, but it's considered a public venue. I could have done this in any number of places."
Clark confirmed that she had given her OK.
"I told him it wasn't an issue, that it's happened before," she said.
Clark said she thought the prohibition against political activity on city property was aimed at people "going from department to department seeking signatures on petitions. That's what that was about."
Under the city code, any person who intentionally violates any provision of Article X can be fined as much as $750.
Bambenek said that "when you're running for the county clerk's office you need to play it straight. Elections need to be done fairly and independently, and you shouldn't have a history of using government power for partisan, political gain.
"Government officials in both parties in this state, going back a century, have a history of using government power and governmental resources to advance their political objective. There needs to be a firewall between government and campaigning."