Guest Column: Are Empower Rockford and the city the same entity?

I regret to report that my request to debate [retired Northern Illinois University Professor James] Banovetz Jan. 18 has been turned down. Here’s the chronology—which you may find raises more questions than it answers.

1. I learned on Wednesday, Dec. 21 that Professor Banovetz was hired by the city to speak at a meeting in the auditorium of the University of Illinois School of Medicine in Rockford at 6 that evening.

2. I called the mayor’s office and asked if I could be present at the meeting.

3. The woman who answered the phone said I could not attend the meeting because it was for City employees only. She said I could attend the public session scheduled for Jan. 18. I asked if that session could be a forum or debate at which Banovetz and I could make presentations, respond to one another, and answer questions from the floor. She said I would have to call Jennifer Larson, the mayor’s assistant.

4. I called Jennifer Larson at the mayor’s office. She was out, so I left a message with my request on her voice mail.

5. Jennifer Larson called back and left the following message on my answering machine at 5:28 p.m. Wednesday: “Hi, Mr. Gile. This is Jennifer calling from Mayor Morrissey’s office. I received your message regarding today’s educational lecture for City employees. The event in January is actually, I believe, being set up by Empower Rockford and will be open to the general public, so that event is not technically being planned by the City. The one today was an educational lecture, a factual lecture only on home rule where Professor Banovetz would take questions and provide answers on home rule. So if you want to contact, for the Jan. 18 lecture, that would be Kathy McDermott, and she can answer your questions on whether or not it can become a forum instead of a straight lecture. Professor Banovetz doesn’t really take a position one way or the other. He just provides facts and answers questions. So that would really be up to them. But let me give you her number. She can be reached at 988-2825, and that’s her cell phone number. Again, her name is Kathy McDermott, so you want to get in touch with her regarding the Jan. 18 lecture. Let me know if you have any other questions. You can reach me directly at 967-6777. Thanks. Bye-bye.”

6. Later, I learned from The Rock River Times that the meeting was attended by seven aldermen and the mayor in addition to about a dozen city employees, potentially a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

7. I called Kathy McDermott Wednesday, Jan. 4, and asked if the Jan. 18 home rule presentation by Professor Banovetz could be a forum at which other perspectives could be presented, including opportunities for responses and for questions from the floor. She said Empower Rockford was meeting Thursday, Jan. 5, and she would let me know what they decide Thursday afternoon or Friday.

8. Thursday afternoon, I received a call from City Legal Director Patrick Hayes. He said:

A. The mayor set up the Jan. 18 presentation by Professor Banovetz, and he’s out of town this week.

B. The City is putting this on, and it is supposed to be free of advocacy, just informational.

C. They do not want to change the Banovetz program to a forum or debate.

D. Professor Banovetz will answer questions from the floor.

9. When he said the City is sponsoring the presentation and is not in the position of saying it is promoting or opposing home rule, I pointed out that home rule proponents hired Banovetz, not home rule opponents. We agreed to disagree whether Banovetz is impartial.

10. He also said the legal office person who denied me permission to attend the Dec. 21 meeting made a mistake that he would have corrected if he had known about it.

11. Regarding an unrelated matter, he informed me that someone had asked that I be removed from the list of five speakers addressing the City Council on Jan. 9, but that he had intervened to keep me on the list. I asked who asked that I be removed. He did not tell me. I thanked him for keeping me on the list.

John Gile is a journalist, author and Rockford resident.

From the Jan. 11-17, 2006, issue

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