Editorial: Time to get real about transparency, Braidwood

Marney Simon

I pulled out my old thesaurus this week, trying to find the right word for what’s happening in Braidwood. But nothing really fit. And all I can come up with is, this has been a hot mess.

For the better part of the past 15 years, I have been covering the Braidwood City Council. I’ve been there for the administrations of mayors Sue Grygiel, Jerry Pressley, Bill Rulien, Jim Vehrs, Bob Jones, Chris Earley, and now Karen Hart. And through my experience with Braidwood politics, I can tell you that there is one thing that each council promises, but I have yet to see come to fruition: True transparency.

That’s not to say that city leaders have been deceptive. With the exception of one former city administrator, the people in that position have always been good at answering calls and emails. Don Labriola, Rich Girot, and Tony Altiery always answered my calls or returned them promptly. The same can be said for various city clerks, from Hillary Bohac to Adam Beaty to Sue Grygiel and even once upon a time when now-State Senator Pat McGuire was clerk, if I asked, I received.

This is also true of the majority of the council. Grygiel, Rulien, Vehrs, and Jones always had time to speak to me, as did Commissioners Fay Smith, Jim Hutton, Dan Graf, Doug Money, Wayne Saltzman, and honestly I could list nearly every elected official who has sat on the dais since 2008, because Braidwood is a small town and its elected leaders have almost always been ready and willing to give me a quote.

However, when it comes to the meat of the meetings—the ordinances, the resolutions, the bills, the contracts, the IGAs, and so on—that paperwork has never really been at the public’s fingertips. Mayor Rulien had a policy to make the list of bills available, but that policy ended when his term did.

I have always been able to get copies of that paperwork when I ask, but I shouldn’t have to ask. Nor should residents of Braidwood have to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for basic information that is discussed and voted on in any given meeting.

Back in 2008, when the City Council approved the purchase of more than $2 million in properties using TIF money, then editor Pam Monson had to get involved to get to the bottom of why those contracts were not made publicly available, as I was brand new on the scene and the administrator at the time simply would tell me no. And when I finally sent a FOIA for the paperwork—paperwork that is made available to the public in almost every other municipality—I was charged $78 for my copies, some of which were blank pages. I’m still salty about that.

This past administration under Bob Jones was actually much better at explaining the items that were being voted on than had been done before, but there’s still a lack of available paperwork unless you actually ask for it.

If you go to the city of Wilmington’s website and click on any committee or council meeting, you’ll find an agenda and copies of everything the council or committee is reviewing or voting on for that date. Sometimes it is redundant because the council will discuss an issue at one meeting, and vote on it at the next, and sure enough, there is the same paperwork in both packets.

But Braidwood has never made a full packet available, not just to me, but in general.

I don’t think it is a matter of being shady or trying to hide anything. It’s more a matter of “it’s never been done that way.”

And it’s about time for that to stop.

This election was messy, and one month in, things are still not quite settled. There are plenty of rumors on social media regarding Mayor Earley’s reason for resigning, but I take him at his word in his written statement to the Braidwood Journal on his reasons. Earley has been a dedicated servant to the community for 60 years, serving the public with the park district and the Braidwood Lions Club, and I’ve always known him to be a decent and hard working man who genuinely wants what is best for his town. It was pretty clear that he was going to have a difficult time as mayor, based on a contentious meeting on May 9, and the letters to the commissioners that he posted at City Hall last week.

I am not interested in squabbling about his resignation. He gave his reasons, and that is the end of it.

Now it is time for the new council to get to it when it comes to their promises of transparency and moving Braidwood forward.

And that starts with information.

I’m asking this new council to adhere to the promise of transparency that we heard during the weeks leading up to April 4. No more standard agendas. It’s time to make all the paperwork reviewed and voted upon during an open meeting available to the public: The contracts, the ordinances, the bills, the resolutions. Don’t make the public ask, just make it available.

Per the Open Meetings Act, we know that some things are exempt, such as ongoing litigation, personnel issues, ongoing land acquisition, and ongoing collective bargaining/contract negotiations. These discussions are meant to stay in closed session. But once any of those items are acted upon, as well as any other resolution, ordinance, payment of bills, payroll, approved contracts, all of that is public. Make it public. A link to the PDF of all these documents should be made on the city’s website, and shared on Facebook.

The City Council has promised progress. Progress begins with knowledge.