Background thoughts and reflections on the upcoming Elgin OCTAVE candidate forum
(Note: these are the personal views and reflections of Chuck Keysor, and do not necessarilyrepresent the views of the Elgin OCTAVE.)
Hello dedicated Elginite readers. I hope that you know about the Elgin OCTAVE city council candidate forum, which will be held this Saturday beginning at 6PM at the New Covenant Fellowship Church, 865 Parkway. That is right off of Dundee Avenue, just south of the tollway (near the Church of the Brethren Headquarters). We will distribute summary spread sheets at the forum, which show the replies of all the participating candidates. You can take one home, and study it at your leisure. We will also post the results on the Elgin OCTAVE website. Hopefully you will be able to come to the forum on Saturday!
For those of you who are interested, I wanted to provide added background on this forum, and let you know some of the details of the questionnaire that we created. So I decided that the best way to do that, would be to post a new blog before the forum on Saturday. It looks like I barely made the deadline!
First, here is some important background information. For about 10 years, I moderated the Near West Neighbors Association Candidate forums. Every year, we would hold at least one forum, and in some election cycles, we would hold two forums. This generated lots of practice in how to put on a forum, and learn what makes for a good event.
I personally enjoyed the organizing activities and the little bit of showmanship involved in the role of moderating a forum. And I took some pride in going to all the other local forums to look for good ideas and creating a list of best practices. And the Near West Neighbors as a group enjoyed these forums as bonding activities.
But beyond these personal/social reasons, we saw these forums as providing several key needs:
1) An aid to voters to help them learn about the issues and the candidates
2) A way to make the candidates aware of the issues that concerned our neighborhood
3) A way to make people aware of our neighborhood group by raising our public profile
4) A means of getting some small leverage with the City
The typical forum we produced is what you can see if you go to You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CVrn7n9wGE , (You can see all of the forum by doing a search on You Tube for Elgin Candidate Forum 2009.) Almost all of the questions were taken from the audience. But the one about the troubled youth home (7 minutes into segment 4) was one that we created and crafted to raise an important issue affecting our neighborhood and the City. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxl0Id0YpWY (The results of that single question took about two years to play out, and ultimately, it resulted in a short-term resolution of that problem.)
I think it is very important for anyone interested in local elections to take some time to watch at least one or two segments of the March 2009 NWNA forum. It shows that those candidates who have the best physical bearing and stage presence are most likely to win. As is typical of these forums, nothing really substantive is said by the candidates. And some of the better answers, came from people who lost. But those same people who gave some good answers, simply lacked what I like to refer to as the “IT” factor.
Ask yourself as you watch, who had the best stage presence? Who seemed most self assured, mature and professional? If you look for those traits, I think you will pick out Prigge, Dunne and Gilliam at or near the top of this ranking. What did Gilliam, Prigge and Dunne offer that made them winners? Really nothing more than trite platitudes and pat answers. But, they had stage presence. And as I will note, there was an air in that election, of “Vote the bums out”, which loaded the deck against Walters, Figureoa and Gilliam. But of those three, who had very similar, if not identical voting records, Gilliam clearly possessed the greatest personal gravitas, and was the only incumbent to survive.
Long before that election cycle, I had worked with Rich Dunne in the Near West Neighbors Association. He was our founding president, and served two years in that role back in the late 90’s. He seemed like a nice guy, and had a nice family. He struck me as someone who was responsible, level headed and who could be trusted. So, knowing nothing else, it seemed as though he could be a good councilman.
And in the 2009 election cycle, behind the scenes, Dunne promised me that he would work to shake things up in City Hall, and to cut off the head of what he called “The Snake”. He said he would bring integrity and light to local government, and be a voice for the people. And I even imagined that if he were to be elected, that our neighborhood group might have improved responsiveness from City Hall. I was impressed, and so I volunteered a couple of cold weekends for Rich by handing out his fliers door to door, putting up signs, and spreading the word that Rich was a “good guy” who will change City Hall.
In that election cycle of 2009 there were still plenty of people who were upset with how things ran at City Hall, and who in particular, were still stinging from the building of the Rec Centre. By that time the Centre had racked up 6 years of unbroken losses, with 2008 having been extra bad, with $911,249 of red ink. Eventually, there developed an on-line mantra for all the disaffected voters, which was simply, and perhaps irrationally, “Prigge and Dunne, Prigge and Dunne.” If you want change, you have to vote for Prigge and Dunne. As a result, two of the three incumbents were tossed out on their ears.
But for all the fluff questions at forums, shallow interviews in the papers, and on-line hype, what did we really know about these candidates? Did we know if they believed in individual liberty? Did they believe that “the state” has supreme powers, and that the people are to serve the desires of the government? How should taxes be viewed? At that time, I was too green to have even considered such questions, and it seemed as though that was the case for the electorate at large.
But it wasn’t until the next couple of years after the 2009 election, that I realized that I had voted for Prigge and Dunne without knowing anything at all about what I was going to get. They drifted, shifted their alliances and tried to find themselves, without any positive outcomes being produced as a result of their having been elected. And Gilliam, who I had supported, continued on in the tradition of his established track record. But it made me realize that our elections were largely reactive,,,,,, someone screws up and makes you angry, then you vote them out, and hope for better luck with the new councilmen. As I was repeatedly disappointed by the actions of the people I had voted for in 2009, I vowed that there must be a better way to get to the heart of the candidates, and to learn BEFORE it was too late, who I should vote for.
When Craig Mason and I started the Elgin OCTAVE in April of 2011, one of our primary desires, was to be able to hold candidate forums. The objective was to assess as early as possible, which candidates would be opposed to the abuses of government. We wanted to know which candidates felt that City Hall should NOT be all-powerful and should NOT use its powers to threaten, fine and intimidate the residents and businesses of Elgin to conform to the self-serving, crony capitalistic interests of city government (projects like Riverside Drive, Artspace, hydro electric dams, brick pavers for the entire downtown….)
We said we would need to find out which candidates believed in lower taxes and smaller government. And the point of trying to find out what we considered to be the core of each candidate, was to allow us to come up with a reasonable idea of how they would vote on taxing and spending should they be elected. Then we would work to let the Citizens of Elgin know where the candidates stood.
We felt that the most common voter desires were in line with lower tax burdens, so that if we could help the voters learn who was for lower taxes, that those candidates would have an improved chance of winning the election. If we could let people know who favored “big” government, that needs “big” taxes to pay for its “big” spending, that the average citizen would not mistakenly vote for such individuals in future city council elections. To do that, we would focus on creating candidate forums that would try to identify the likely voting patterns of the candidates.
Now, what do you do when you wind up with a candidate pool that has more than 20 people? If you have a two hour forum, and take 5 minutes for opening ceremonies and the explanation of the rules, and allow each candidate to make a 2 minute opening speech, and a 2 minute closing speech, you are suddenly left with about 35 minutes for questions and answers. One question, with a brief reply is all you have time for! Clearly the voters can not assess the core voting philosophies of anyone with one question and some pre-scripted stump speeches. If we were to throw out the closing statements, then you can ask two questions in total. Clearly not a very viable platform to meet our objectives.
A few months ago at our Elgin OCTAVE board meeting, we started to discuss what an unusual circumstance we were facing. We discussed having three forums: one for the two year cycle before the primary, and one for the 4 year people, and finally, one for the 4 year candidates and the two that made it through the two year primary. That went over like a the proverbial lead balloon, too much work, not enough time. So we at least agreed to have two forums, and to include every candidate in every forum. Very clearly, we felt that by having the first forum, we would go a long way toward establishing the dominant issues for this election cycle. So if we had the first forum, having the last one would be logical, and spread out our work load.
With that resolved, the question of mining information from the candidates was addressed through the concept of a questionnaire. The questionnaire would allow the candidates lots of time to answer, and so it would allow them to answer many more questions, which would then in turn allow us to find out lots more about the candidates, all to the benefit of the voters. Because we had been logging issues spread out over the last 4 years, there were LOTS of things to ask about, but when the idea of having 50 questions was floated, it was seen as TOO much. So being a cooperative, compromising group, we settled ultimately on having only 45 questions!
In working with Bob Gilliam on matters connected to the Elgin Business License, he told me at that time that he liked me, and would continue to get along with me, as long as he never saw me misquote him, or take his words out of context. That had some significant bearing, and knowing that we wanted to make a spread sheet that would show the responses of all the candidates to the issues, it seemed natural to move to questions that could be easily tabulated, ie Yes/No and Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree range types of questions. Such questions would eliminate the potential for misquoting anybody, or taking their comments out of context.
The last aspect of the survey to fall in place, was spurred by the City Council. This fall, they voted to hire a consultant for $288,000 to study the options for reconfiguring Elgin’s water billing structure, water rates and report on the options and fees for a storm water utility tax (aka “the Rain Tax”). I spoke to the council at the next session, and asked, “Why should you commission a study on taxing rain, without first assessing if you are even willing to tax people on their rain water?” We all know it is a STANDARD sleazy political dodge to have a study in the election year, and in the year following, to implement a new tax, and justify it based upon the study. Yet I pointed out that even without a study, John Prigge knows he doesn’t want the rain tax, and Mayor Kaptain knows he does want the rain tax. I pointed out that the study won’t tell you IF you should create a tax. That is POLICY, which only the council can decide.
In that speech, I said that the Elgin OCTAVE would work to try and cut through this issue, and MAKE Dunne and Gilliam declare their position on this tax BEFORE the election. It is the Citizen’s right to know before casting their vote. I told them that they can hide and say that they need a study. But Prigge and Kaptain have taken as stand BEFORE the study, and it is not illogical that anyone else could not figure out if they would support another new tax or not. (It should be remembered that Kaptain is not up for re-election this year, and when he ran for mayor 2 years ago, he said he would only serve one term. So one should not count his stand on this as involving any degree of courage, but his honesty is none the less worthy of note.)
The voters will know that Dunne and Gilliam have no excuse, except that they are obviously and inexcusably attempting to evade the issue. It is my belief, based upon Dunne’s and Gilliam’s unbroken record of voting to increase every tax at every opportunity, that they will vote for the “Rain Tax” if they are re-elected. And if you read any of the City documentation on the proposal, any logical individual would see that it looks like the “Rain Tax” is a done deal. But Dunne and Gilliam know that they must avoid taking a stand in support of the “Rain Tax”, because most Elginites, in my opinion, don’t want to pay for a tax on their rain, and it would cost them votes, and quite possibly the election. But when Gilliam and Dunne put serving their own needs to get re-elected above the cries of the poor people of Elgin, it is politically expedient to avoid the issue, and logical to hide behind the need for a study.
As a result, it seemed most to the point to make the questionnaire have pointed questions. So the very first question on our survey is totally pointed, and without any apology it flat out asks: “Do you support the proposed storm water utility tax, aka the “Rain Tax”?
LOTS of citizens were really mad about the “Trash” tax which is addressed in question 2. Typically, that tax having been enacted in December 2011 as part of the “trumped up” budget crisis, would have fallen off of the radar screens by now. That is how the game is played, pass the new taxes as far away from an election cycle as you can. So, to fight that, we tried to keep this coal burning hot in the pocket books of every voter so that when they enter the voting booth on April 9th, they can remember that Gilliam and Dunne voted for this new tax, which shows up on every water bill every month as a $13.25 refuse fee. That turns into $159 per year in a brand new tax.
Question 3 is a biggie that got swept under the rug last year, video gaming. The council voted 7 to 0 to keep video gaming out of Elgin. When one considers that: 1) the rest of the cities around us have it, (or are moving towards it), 2) various businesses and organizations in Elgin are in dire financial straights and could be rescued by video gambling, 3) we have a gigantic gambling boat, the proves we are not opposed to gambling, it simply becomes clear that this issue was not fairly or completely considered. Yet the council blindly kicked the issue out the door without even thinking. Maybe all that money that the City could suck in from willing gamblers can be used to lighten the load on the rest of us cash strapped residents. (Slim chance there though, as when “big government” sucks in more money, they tend to spend it. Maybe they will throw the $$$$ to the Elgin Symphony since they are the fiscal basket case of the day.)
Here is a link to our survey. http://elginoctave.weebly.com/ Check it out and see what you think.
Some of the issues are so well known, that even without set-up, there should be no problem in answering them one way or the other. On other questions, we build in support information, figuring that some information was simply too hard to come by without filing lots of FOIAs.
If you look at question 7, you will see such a question. It is very easy and pat for the Downtown Neighborhood Association/”DNA” to say, gee, we can get funded out of a special taxing district in the downtown, and all the members of the City council just smile and nod approvingly. But did anyone do even the simplest bit of math to see how few businesses there are in downtown Elgin, and that with all the big bucks that the DNA needs to stay afloat, it would cost each downtown business over $1000 per year to pay for the DNA? How many businesses would that chase out of downtown? More brilliant rocket science…..
As you look at the survey, you will notice that there are other questions that may require more background information than is given, and the issues are a bit more remote. So please be aware that the candidates were given roughly 3 weeks to answer the survey. And when the survey was sent out, we stressed that this is not a closed book test. We even encouraged the candidates to check where ever they could, and consult with as many people as they liked. This is what they would hopefully be able to do should they get elected.
After the survey was sent, I also provided supplementary information, for example a record of all the losses incurred by the Centre since it opened, etc. If you look at question 27, it asks the candidates if they think the City’s “financial crisis” of 2011 was real or not. I sent highly annotated documents which were based on information supplied by the City to the bond rating agencies, combined with info from other FOIAs and newspaper stories. This made it clear how the City had first started with a small deficit, and in a few months ramped it up by many millions of dollars. And yet we closed out 2011 with a surplus, and not the promised deficit. But it appears quite clearly, that the City raised the specter of a financial melt-down in order to justify a massive tax increase. And when the initial figure of less than $5million didn’t seem to get the required reaction, they simply kept pumping up the numbers until almost everyone was convinced that taxes need to be raised.
Another standard dodge at election forums is to be surprised with a hot question, and then ducking it by claiming that you don’t have enough information to accurately answer. I have seen that all too often. One new member of the council, who shall remain anonymous, shortly before the election, could not comment on the Elgin Business License, because she said she didn’t know enough about it. Yet two weeks after getting into office, I talked to her, and she said the Elgin Business License would only be repealed over her dead body. So PLEASE take in mind, that those past experiences helped to guide our questionnaire. We want to deny candidates the dodge of saying that they don’t know enough to answer a question. If they don’t know enough, then they had better go investigate. After all, they had close to three weeks to complete the survey.
We have gotten criticism for having biased questions, and leading questions. But there is no reason that if someone says that they support the “Rain Tax”, they can not say so, and say so with pride. If they know we don’t like the rain tax, so what. Believe it or not, this is not about me, or the Elgin OCTAVE, this is for the voters, so that they can decide rationally who to vote for. Tell the voters we are biased, and then tell them yourself that you like the “Rain Tax”. I would guess they would simply say we are biased, and leave out the rest…..
Further, the candidates have every opportunity to come to our forum, and blast us if they want. We don’t mind, they are providing more memorable input for the voters. Our pointed questions were not in any way attempting prevent the candidate from making their case. We only wanted to make our position known on various key issues. It is part of establishing our “brand identity” as low tax, small government people.
Take a look at question 15. We have raised issues in the past, and gotten nowhere. This question is a case in point. During the trumped up “budget crisis”, we proposed that the City sell off some of its excess inventory of properties instead of raising taxes. EVERYONE on the council ridiculed this very simple and logical proposal as being absurd. So, we are re-floating something here to see if new candidates, with open/functional minds find such a simple concept worth investigating. That was another question with supplemental information. All candidates were sent detailed maps showing the location of EVERY city owned property, and a complete list of all those properties.
As to the survey and the incumbents, both Bob Gilliam and Rich Dunne have refused to come to our forum, and they have refused to answer our questionnaire. They do though, have voting records that clearly show they have voted for every opportunity to raise taxes, and that they both have tax and spend mindsets. The residents of Elgin, are by and large, poor people, with limited means to pay for the grandiose visions for Elgin which are being promoted by City Hall. This clearly puts Dunne and Gilliam at odds with the needs of most Elginites.
In all honesty, we had not anticipated being boycotted by any candidates. Again, out of all these city council candidate forums I have run, I have NEVER had a single candidate miss one. They have all said that they would move heaven and earth to not miss a forum. Even 4 years ago, the group AFLA, that was anti-illegal immigration, hosted a forum. All the candidates turned out, even the council candidates who were RADICALLY opposed to AFLA showed up. So I guess holding a forum on taxing and spending issues is harder to stomach when you have a 4 or 40 year record of excessive taxation and high spending.
Even incumbent Prigge is mad at us, because we are allowing candidates who did not answer our questionnaire to participate in our forum on Saturday. He claims that because he followed the rules, and took a stand, that he as a result of our trying to engage as many candidates as we can, gets reduced stage time in front of the voters at our forum. He also said that he was shocked and said that we would loose all credibility by trying to get candidates who do not attend our forum to answer the questionnaire at some later time. When of course our objective is to get as many candidate views on record as possible, so that the voters can have the best chance at making informed decisions, that is how we have to proceed.
So, it just goes to show, you can’t please everyone, but we struggle on and do the best we can to help the voters learn where the candidates stand on tax and spend issues. Can that really be so bad?