Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Has O’Neill hindered or helped his cause?

by John Halverson

June 07, 2012

Can you do more by being part of the process or are you better off working from the outside?

That must be something former city councilman Terry O’Neill contemplated before his sudden resignation recently.

He left behind a letter in which he expressed frustration with both the city staff and the process of government.

While O’Neill hasn’t provided more details, his appearance at the last city council meeting showed his intentions — he’s going to make his opinions known from in front of the decision-makers instead of among them.

His letter alluded to challenges of the open meeting laws and of dealing with city staff.

One example of his concern with closed meetings was obviously his inability to speak publicly about the settlement between Hummel and the city over their multimillion dollar lawsuits. His frustration was apparent when the city council was talking about changing its master plan.

The city attorney warned O’Neill several times not to comment about what had occurred during closed meetings.

While O’Neill obviously felt hamstrung, he did say enough to imply that the lawsuit settlement was tied to the master plan changes.

O’Neill’s limited comments and his vote against the change were all that he could muster — but they made clear his frustration and, by implication, his position.

It seems obvious in the real world that not every personnel or contractual relationship can be hashed out in open meetings. In the case of personnel almost everyone agrees that some confidentiality is prudent.

In the case of ongoing legal or land purchase proceedings, the city would be at a distinct disadvantage if their strategy was widely known while the other side’s was not. And would the other side ever negotiate in good faith if everything discussed were public record?

The open meetings law is explicit as to what can be discussed and what can’t. Do governments sometimes abuse that privilege or stretch the definition? Yes they do, but not often.

Was there some sort of deal in the Hummel case cut behind closed doors as O’Neill implied?

City Attorney Dan Draper acknowledged there was an agreement of sorts when he announced the settlement. The question is, was “the deal” nefarious or not?

Draper said there was a “memorandum of understanding” to act on the agreement by a certain time but nothing obligating the council to vote one way or another. Was it wink-wink, we’ll change the master plan if you drop the suit? We’ll never know for sure.

In any case, O’Neill’s perspective was given voice by others. I doubt full disclosure of those closed meetings would have changed the minds of those zealots on either side.

And when it was over the lawsuits which had put the city on the brink of financial calamity were settled and the feared developers put their property up for sale. Not a bad ending.

The other reason O’Neill noted for his resignation involved concerns about the city administration, specifically City Administrator Dennis Jordan, involving a water safety issue that occurred last summer.

O’Neill believes that Jordan should have been at least reprimanded, if not burned at the stake, for not closing the beach when the E.coli bacteria readings were beyond the healthy limits.

The decision to not close the beach was based on the assumption that the readings were so high — more than 10 times the level for an advisory — they were probably invalid. A subsequent reading the next week showed that one sample was elevated but the other two were within safe limits.

Plus Jordan didn’t make the decision unilaterally. He consulted with the director of the Geneva Lake Environmental Agency, who takes the tests and ought to know more than either O’Neill or Jordan.

Whether there ought to have been more public or council discussion at the time, is arguable. Even one of the second week’s readings were over the advisory criteria.

Mayor Jim Connors has said he’s interested in solving problems not throwing anyone under the bus.

Connors must realize that while protecting your employees in the private sector is laudable, there is a responsibility in the public sector for broader transparency.

All that said, the practical implications are moot. There were no reported illnesses. And the city has since adopted a policy for a faster turnaround on the tests. Perhaps O’Neill gets points for affecting that change but he ought to give it a rest now.

He’s made his point, but continually pummeling Jordan only sabotages any point he may be making.

When all is said and done, O’Neill traded his place at the table as a city councilman for a public podium. Will he be more effective?

I doubt it.

I’m sure having to keep silent about closed door meetings can be frustrating. It’s like a reporter who takes information off the record. It can be frustrating but it’s baggage that comes with the job.

As for challenging city officials, he hasn’t gained any leverage by not being involved.

Being off the city council opens O’Neill up to getting all his information through the grapevine, which is ripe with innuendo, rumor and misinformation — something every town has too much of.

Knowing the facts can be frustrating especially if you can’t talk about them, but at least it’s knowledge.

This isn’t a rip on O’Neill personally. After all he’s also the person who is going around the city picking up trash — a benevolent pursuit.

And I’ve always felt every public body needs a challenging voice. But the person behind that voice must recognize the challenges of that job before applying for it. There are some crosses to bear.

Believing you’re right doesn’t matter if you aren’t effective — and effectiveness is lessened if you aren’t part of the process.

Everyone running for office should heed the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena ...”

Halverson is the editor and general manager of the Lake Geneva Regional News.