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Keepin’ it Kleen: Council appointment shows democracy inaction at play

November 13, 2013

Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen

By Michael Kleen

In April 2013, Vernon Hilton (D) won a narrow victory over Pamela Connell (R) to become alderman of Rockford’s Sixth Ward. Less than six months later, Hilton resigned and moved to Texas for a job opportunity. Before leaving, he recommended that his friend, Marcus Hill, be appointed to fill the vacancy. After interviewing five applicants and reviewing their résumés, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) chose to appoint Hill.

The appointment made the front page of the Rockford Register Star. Their sub headline read, “Mayor says Safer Foundation rep Marcus Hill is best of 5 candidates for 6th Ward.” Given the information presented in the article, we are led to believe that yes, this was a wonderful decision. The Register Star, however, did not report the full story. A more complete view of the facts about the candidates will show this was far from the best decision the mayor could have made.

Let me make one thing clear: my purpose is not to denigrate or disparage the appointee. I’m sure Mr. Hill is an upstanding man and might make a perfectly fine alderman. My purpose is 1) to point out that Mayor Morrissey’s argument in favor of his decision is either questionable, disingenuous or both, and 2) to point out the Register Star’s omission of certain important facts from their coverage of that decision.

The most important omission from the Register Star’s coverage of the appointment was any mention of the other applicants. Who were they? One was Pamela Connell, the Republican who lost to Vernon Hilton in the April election. She received 48.38 percent of the vote and was a handful of votes away from becoming the next Alderman of Rockford’s Sixth Ward.

Connell holds a doctorate in management and human resources from James Madison University and is a senior corporate recruiter for National Express Corporation. She was also operations chairman for Rockford AirFest, where she was in charge of recruitment, scheduling and training of 900 volunteers and supervisors. Her experience in management and in helping businesses run efficiently and effectively would have served her well on the city council.

Connell was the logical choice to succeed Hilton when he resigned because she came in a close second in the election. There is nothing in Rockford’s municipal code that prevented the mayor from appointing a Republican (or anyone else, for that matter) to fill a vacant seat formerly held by a Democrat.

Hill is a site supervisor at Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that gives employment, educational and support services to people with criminal records. According to the Register Star, this experience helped because Mayor Morrissey’s administration is focused on parolee and prisoner re-entry programs. “Hill’s enthusiasm and background with public safety ultimately gave him the edge over the four other candidates,” the Register Star said. Connell, however, also has some public safety experience. She is a graduate of the FBI Citizens Academy and is the Rockford alumni director for that organization.

I agree that public safety is an important priority, but shouldn’t it be just one of many considerations when selecting an alderman? Aldermen have to tackle any number of things, ranging from finance, to zoning, codes and regulations, city personnel, and more. It seems odd to place so much emphasis on a single issue like prisoner re-entry. How often will that issue come up in city council or committee meetings?

In my opinion, this appointment was a questionable decision made for the flimsiest of reasons. Connell has outstanding credentials and the support of nearly half the voters in the Sixth Ward. It is naive to say that “enthusiasm” is a more important quality in a public official than years of managerial experience. It is equally questionable to act on the recommendation of an alderman who barely served six months of his term rather than on the will of the voters.

By only reporting half the story, the Register Star once again painted a misleading picture of events. Based on the facts I’ve presented here, I find it difficult to believe that Mayor Morrissey seriously considered the qualifications of all the candidates when he made his decision. If he had, I believe he would have chosen Connell. This makes me doubt the official reasoning behind the mayor’s pick. Until more information comes to light, however, I can only take him at his word, and that has proven to be a less than dependable metric by which to measure reality.

Michael Kleen is a local author, historian and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education. He was the Republican candidate for Rockford mayor in the 2013 election. Read his previous columns online at makleen.com.

From the Nov. 13-19, 2013, issue

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