Truth a casualty when the Fourth Estate dabbles in city business?

September 9, 2009

Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) enlists ensemble cast to guide budget process

By Stuart R. Wahlin

Staff Writer

“[Edmund] Burke said that there were Three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

—From Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero-Worship in History

Aug. 17, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) revealed a list of appointees to his latest advisory committee, which begins meeting this month in an effort to get a handle on budget challenges as the city council looks ahead to its 2010 fiscal year.

In addition to an estimated $6 million shortfall for 2010, it is hoped the group will help close a $2.2 million budget gap projected for the remainder of 2009.

Morrissey described the committee’s members as experts in finance and business, who will serve as council advisers in crafting the budget, which will inevitably include cuts as the recession lingers.

The list reads something like a “who’s who” of local business leadership and political clout, which tend to be mutually inclusive.

Perhaps most disturbing, however, is that the president and publisher of the Rockford Register Star, Scott Bowers, accepted an appointment to the committee.

Although neither Bowers nor the local daily has political campaign contributions on the books, the potential for conflict in this arrangement is egregious.

After a conflict of interest was suggested via reader comments on the daily’s Web site, Executive Editor Linda Grist Cunningham asserted in her blog: “For 154 years, publishers of the Register Star have served on, chaired and otherwise participated in dozens of public and private committees, boards and task forces. For at least the last 15 years (and three publishers), the newspaper has covered the publisher’s involvement, editorialized on what was being done (not always in support and occasionally much the opposite) and always included a note or paragraph in the stories and editorials that pointed out the publisher’s roles. And, those notes always explained that the publisher does not participate in board discussions relating to his committees nor does he involve himself in news coverage.

“Since the editorial board’s positions are on the record and have been for a long time, I doubt seriously that anything we say, write, cover or editorialize on will come as a surprise,” she added.

Grist Cunningham indicated Fritz Jacobi, Bowers’ predecessor, served as chairman of at least two mayor-appointed committees under Doug Scott (D).

“He was president of the Council of 100 [now the Rockford Area Economic Development Council] for at least two years and headed the controversial move to separate the Council from the Chamber,” her blog noted.

Before Jacobi, she added, Mary Stier was “deeply involved in several public-private committees” under Scott and predecessor Charles Box (D).

“And, the publisher of the RRS was instrumental in creating the original Council of 100 under [former Mayor John] McNamara [D] back in the 1980s. And, another publisher was part of the original group that created the Pro Am 30-plus years ago. Coverage of all those has been in the newspaper—along with their disclaimers,” she noted.

In 2004, the local daily donated $3,500 to Empower Rockford, the pro-home rule action group, and then waited nearly a year to tell anyone about it, all while reporting about the push for home rule. The contribution was finally outed in an Oct. 19-25, 2005, article in The Rock River Times.

Based on the poor financial performance and swelling debt of the daily’s parent, GateHouse Media, however, it is unclear to some what expertise Bowers brings to the table relevant to a city budget.

“Each of the members brings unique qualities and perspectives to the committee,” Morrissey explained. “Mr. Bowers represents the business side of the paper. He is currently the publisher, but has a finance background also.”

The issue, however, is whether it is appropriate for the head of a news organization to become part of this particular story by being so directly involved in a bureaucracy the press has a duty to remain separate from.

To the cynics among us, it’s a good gamble by Morrissey to enlist the daily as a means to ensure the best chance of a positive spin in the press regarding life-altering cuts, for which the Register Star is now in a position to share the blame.

Bowers did not respond for comment, and Grist Cunningham stood by her blog entry, with nothing further to add.

Indirect recruitment of the press on this committee could reach beyond just the daily, which has been partnering with WREX-TV for some time. WREX’s vice president and general manager, John Chadwick, also serves as chairman of the board for the Rockford Area Economic Development Council (RAEDC), which is among the groups represented on the ad hoc committee.

The RAEDC relies on 27 percent municipal funding for its annual budget.

William Charles represented at top of heap

William Charles Development’s John Holmstrom III was named chairman of the ad hoc committee. Through his experience with William Charles, Holmstrom’s qualifications are clear, but it should also be noted Holmstrom has contributed $4,000 to campaigns for state and local races, according to campaign disclosure records. Of that, Holmstrom contributed $700 to Morrissey’s campaign, as did William Charles, Ltd., whose contributions in Illinois total $143,299.35.

Combined contributions from William Charles subsidiaries Ragnar Benson and Rockford Blacktop (now William Charles Construction) accounted for an additional $69,688.88 to campaign coffers. William Charles companies are frequent bidders on, and recipients of, local and state road projects.

There’s a saying around Rockford: “What William Charles wants, William Charles gets.” Just ask the folks who live around Mulford Quarry. Well, you could try to ask them, but they probably won’t hear you, because blasting season is under way in the neighborhood. The residents have a controversial asphalt plant to look forward to in the quarry, too.

The cycle of rebuilding crumbling roads is good work if you can get it, and despite slumping sales tax revenues, it is likely opportunities to bid on city contracts in the next fiscal year will continue to be plentiful for William Charles and its local competitors. That much was promised to voters when the 1-percentage-point sales tax increase was approved, and the roads still need it.

Because the sales tax revenue can only be used for the road program, the cuts will have to come from elsewhere.

But maybe it’s time the council realizes the lowest bid isn’t always the best deal, even when trying to appear frugal. When it comes to roads, quality of materials and longevity of the workmanship is worth paying a few extra dollars for, because it’s a wiser investment. The Band-Aid approach to roads is a costly one, and one designed to ensure contractors stay happy.

As part of the committee’s recommendations, contractors should be made to stand behind their craftsmanship by way of agreements to maintain the roads they’ve built. This scenario is a sure way to see the job is done right. It makes little sense to build a new road if it’s only going to fall apart after a few years, and cost significantly more to replace.

We can do better, and one can hope Mr. Holmstrom will take the lead in being mindful of what’s best for the city’s taxpayers.

Committee includes, but not limited to, Morrissey contributors

Appointee Ted Ross, retired vice president of finance at Sundstrand, contributed $31,995 to Morrissey’s campaign.

Fellow appointee LoRayne Logan, president of The Workplace and a Rockford Board of Fire and Police commissioner, contributed $9,962.45 to Morrissey.

The Workplace contributed $9,320 to the mayor’s campaign, and $1,500 to Citizens for Rebuilding Rockford, Morrissey’s successful referendum to raise sales tax for infrastructure improvements.

Meantime, Morrissey has delayed a vote to re-appoint Logan to the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners until the racially-charged issue of the officer shooting of Mark Anthony Barmore has been resolved.

DraftFCB Finance Director Phyllis Ginestra, also an appointee of the Rockford Housing Authority, will serve on the board, too. Ginestra contributed $2,234 to the Morrissey campaign.

Rockford Consulting & Brokerage’s Ryan Brauns, also secretary of the Rockford Board of Election Commissioners, will take part as the city’s health insurance consultant. Brauns contributed $165 to Morrissey’s campaign.

Committee members who were not contributors to the Morrissey campaign—either personally, or by way of their employers—include First Rockford Group President Sunil Puri, Rockford Chamber of Commerce CEO Einar Forsman, RAEDC CEO Janyce Fadden, Alpine Bank President Bill Roop, AMCORE Bank Commercial Relationship Manager Vernon Hilton, Liebovich Bros. Corporate Controller Barb Jackson, Hinshaw & Culbertson attorney Jim Pirages, Williams Manny COO/Vice President of Finance Dan Ross and Smith Amundsen attorney Jeff Glass.

Morrissey asserted political contributions were not a factor in his selection process for the ad hoc committee.

City Administrator Jim Ryan, City Finance Director Andres Sammul and City Legal Director Patrick Hayes will represent the city in the group, along with aldermen Pat Curran (R-2) and Bill Robertson (I-14). Robertson was forced to run for city council as an Independent, but is openly considered a Democrat.

The city’s auditing firm, Lauterbach & Anen, will also participate in the budget process.

A ruse to shirk responsibility?

“I am very proud of the willingness of these individuals to answer a call for their help and support at this time of need,” Morrissey told The Rock River Times. “This represents one of the finer elements of our democracy—citizens willing to volunteer their efforts for the good of the whole community. I look forward to both the financial and business expertise of these individuals, as well as their public support for the plan that is developed.”

Bringing together the area’s brightest business minds has obvious merit, but it also raises the question of whether there’s a conflict of interest when individuals representing contractors and developers, for instance, are in a position to directly influence the city’s spending.

That’s not all.

On the surface, the committee appears as a community think tank, where selected citizens rally behind their city to shore things up while weathering an economic storm. That’s noble, but it could also be a way for elected leaders to try to deflect accountability.

In addition to the obvious advantages of bringing private sector know-how into the budget fold, the council, as an elected body, will effectively take some of the heat off itself by being able to spread the blame when unpopular cuts are made.

Speaking of unpopular, the mayor and aldermen successfully employed this modus operandi already for the most recent MetroCentre bailout, while using the same public-private approach to set the stage for likely funding reductions for other downtown venues, festivals and special events. Talk about giving with one hand while taking away with the other, but these are tough times.

“I have called upon aid from our citizens throughout my time as mayor,” Morrissey acknowledged. “From our Rebuilding Rockford campaign, to our support for charter schools, to our ad hoc committee on downtown venues, festivals and special events, and now to the budget and finance advisory group, it is my deep belief that we work best as a city when we open the doors of City Hall and reach out to our community for ideas and support.”

In other words, one can deduce, sometimes it takes carefully-chosen private citizens to convince other commoners to take what is often a bitter pill, whether it be a tax increase, a bailout, or cuts to libraries, the arts or public safety.

When the cuts are made, there will be plenty of blame to go around, but the council has fortified itself with a bulwark of private citizens—including the head of at least one press organization—to soften the blow.

Morrissey rebuked the notion.

“Your question improperly assumes conduct for which blame would need to be placed, or an apology necessary,” the mayor responded. “There is no need to apologize for budget cuts that might be proposed and passed.

“I have the job of putting our citizens first, and doing everything I can to try to deliver the best service at the best price,” he noted.

The advent of the ad-hoc-run-amok trend for city business leads one to wonder why Rockfordians bother to elect city leaders and pay city staff while there are evidently more knowledgeable, albeit less accountable, folks willing to do their homework for free.

It’s within reason to suggest this group of business leaders could be hung out to dry by the time the next election rolls around, and the mayor and council members may defensively shout, “I was only acting on the committee’s advice,” when voters remember the cuts that are about to be made.

Not so, the mayor pledged.

“I have no problems saying where the buck stops, and taking whatever arrows or bullets my political opponents may want to dish out,” Morrissey asserted.

From the September 9-15, 2009 issue

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