Monday, July 15, 2019

Public Officials Should Not Appear in Ads for Public Events: Speech to the Waukegan City Council on August 5th, 2019 (First Draft)

     The following is the text of a short speech which I intend to deliver at a meeting of the Waukegan City Council on August 5th, 2019.
     The speech is addressed to the mayor of Waukegan and the other members of the city council (consisting of nine aldermen, a city clerk treasurer, and a corporate counsel).
     For more information on the members of the Waukegan City Council, see the following link:
     The speech reads thus:

     At the last meeting of the Waukegan City Council (on July 15th), a Waukegan resident urged the council to consider whether it constituted an illegal case of taxpayer fraud, that the name and likeness of Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham have appeared on advertisements for the Waukegan Music Festival, a local city event.
     I was not familiar with this controversy until that citizen made her comments, but it turns out that this issue goes back to September 7th, 2018, when the Chicago Tribune asked the same question, in an article by Emily K. Coleman, entitled "Waukegan alderman questions 'Chicago-style politics' in putting mayor's name on city festival ads".

     Typically, in our legal system, the accused and the judge are not supposed to be the same person. That's why - especially considering the fact that this controversy goes back at least ten months - I found it very inappropriate that the mayor would acquit himself, rather than recuse himself from the controversy, when Alderman Ann Martin tried to explain the resident's concern about the ad in which the mayor appeared.
     In my opinion, Mayor Cunningham should have recused himself from the issue, in the same manner in which Supreme Court justices (occasionally, albeit not enough) recuse themselves, when they are asked to be neutral arbiters in lawsuits in which the outcome stands to directly and materially benefit them personally.
     Mayor Cunningham should have said "I shouldn't comment on this matter any further, because I am the party whose innocence is under question, and, as such, I am not qualified to contest my guilt in such a public venue, Therefore, let someone with legal standing, file the appropriate charges against me, and the local election authorities or the courts can determine whether and how I should be punished, and how the Waukegan Music Festival should be funded and advertised."

     If our mayor is being accused of committing a crime - and I'm not yet suggesting that he should be - then his guilt or innocence of that charge is not going to be decided through a spontaneous (and very public) conversation between Mayor Sam Cunningham and Alderman Ann Martin. The issue of whether a public official has committed taxpayer fraud, or election fraud, ought to be dealt with by the police, and/or by the Illinois Board of Elections, or by the county or local election authorities.
     Similarly, the issue of whether it should be illegal to spend public taxpayer money on publicly-sponsored events that feature the name or likeness of currently seated public officials, is also not something that can be figured out through a two-minute conversation between the mayor and an alderman. Either the state or local election authorities, or whatever court is authorized to oversee election law that pertains to local elections in Waukegan, should be making such a decision.
     This is a very complicated issue; it is not just a legal issue, but very likely also a constitutional one, because it relates to issues like how public entities run their own elections, whether campaigns and political parties are private institutions, and how that affects their right to receive taxpayer funds.
     That is why the issue of the Waukegan Music Festival, and the issue of whether the mayor has found a way to improperly misappropriate taxpayer funds for the purposes of his own re-election, should not be decided through the mayor simply loudly insisting upon his innocence to an alderman (while the public has no right to weigh in on the matter).

     Alderman Martin explained to the mayor several times that what the Waukegan resident was concerned about, was not the issue of whether performers at the Waukegan Music Festival are legitimate entertainers. That is not the question at hand, although the mayor seemed to think that that was the issue at a few points.
     While I wish to commend Alderman Martin for trying to explain that that wasn't what the Waukegan resident was concerned about, I also have to say that I don't think Alderman Martin succeeded in explaining to the mayor what that exact concern was. The issue at hand here - I think - is whether taxpayer money may be used to promote events whose advertisements contain the name or likeness of currently seated public office holders. I believe that that is the specific issue we're talking about, is that correct?
     I haven't personally looked at the election law regarding this topic, but I suspect that there is a strong possibility that the expenditure of public funds on publicly-sponsored events, wherein the names and faces of seated incumbent public officials are featured in order to advertise the events, does constitute improper use of taxpayer funds. That is not to say, however, that I am accusing the mayor of anything inappropriate; I am only saying that he benefits from the tradition of involving the mayor in the promotion of the Waukegan Music Festival.
     As the mayor explained during the most recent city council meeting, several mayors have been associated with promoting the Waukegan Music Festival. If what he's saying is true, then Mayor Cunningham should not be blamed for improper use of taxpayer funds (especially if he only agreed to appear in advertisements for the event as part of local tradition). If this tradition was started by previous mayors, then if there is anything about these ads that defrauds taxpayers, then the blame lies with the first mayor who approved and appeared in ads like this; not with the current mayor.

     But still, the use of the mayor's title in the event's ads (whether his name or face are used or not) almost seems to suggest to the public that it is the mayor who is personally giving this festival to the residents of Waukegan. Especially if the Waukegan Music Festival is going to be called the Waukegan Mayor's Music Festival. Taken literally, the possessive "'s" after "Waukegan Mayor" in "Waukegan Mayor's Music Festival" could be misunderstood, and taken to imply that the music festival is the Waukegan Mayor's property.
     Of course, it is not, but do all Waukegan residents know that? Do all residents know that that is not how government works? The City of Waukegan should make it abundantly clear to the residents of Waukegan that the Waukegan Music Festival belongs to the people, and not to the mayor; that it is a publicly-funded, publicly-organized event; and that the mayor derives his authority and salary from the people.
     This should be the focus of our concern. It should be clear - by the name of the event, by how it is funded, and by whose names and faces appear on advertisements for it - that the Waukegan Music festival is a publicly-funded, publicly-organized event; not something which is primarily organized, planned, nor funded by the mayor. And that goes, regardless of who happens to be the mayor.
     The use of the names and faces of currently seated public officials, gives all incumbent public officials an edge, when it comes to getting elected, because it increases the chances that the public could come to see those officials as the people who give the public those festivals (rather than it being the public which organizes these events and gives the mayor his money and power to begin with).
     It would be unfair to all potential challengers to the current mayor in his next election, to unfairly favor incumbent public officials, by continuing to allow them to appear in advertisements for public events; events which were organized and funded entirely through the approval of the public, not by the mayor.
     Mayor Cunningham benefits from the current policy of allowing elected officials to appear in ads for public funded events, whether he wants to benefit from it or not; and that's why this policy must change. Mayor Cunningham may be totally innocent, and the policy may be good enough; but even if that's so, the mayor and the city should take extra precaution, and change the policy, because doing so would remove the potential conflict of interest involving the mayor. Which, I think, everybody has an interest in removing; the mayor most of all, because it would remove from the mayor the incentive and ability to misappropriate or reroute public funds in order to engage in that sort of self-promotion in the first place.

     The city of Waukegan should discontinue its policy of allowing elected officials to appear in ads for publicly funded events; lest the less intelligent members of our community feel pressured to re-elect the mayor, based on some ill-founded fear that if they don't re-elect the mayor, then nobody will provide them with the same sorts of music festivals and other public events which the mayor appeared to provide by agreeing to lend his title, name, and face for the sake of their promotion.
     We, as residents of Waukegan, have every right to be concerned about taxpayer funds being effectively rerouted so as to fund campaigns, through this legal loophole we've discovered, which allows incumbent elected officials to appear in advertisements for public events, at public expense. Political parties and campaigns are private organizations, and as such should never receive public funds. Yet they do; through this advertisement loophole, through the gift of taxpayer funds to all parties receiving more than 5% of the electorate's vote, and undoubtedly through other avenues as well.
     This should end, and we can take the first step right here in Waukegan, by ensuring that, going forward, all advertisement for public events should be free of association with any particular office holder, or title of an official, serving any government, be it at the local, county, state, or federal level.

Written and published on July 15th, 2019

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