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City Manager Julia Carroll recently tightened her grip on City employees by mandating that she be notified whenever they speak to the press. She says they may tell her beforehand or afterward, but says as CEO of the City of Evanston she feels she is accountable for “whatever is out there” and thus she needs to know what City employees are saying. In some instances she has insisted on being present at the interview.
As City Manager, Ms. Carroll is fully within her rights to do this. A check with the Illinois Attorney General’s office and a Constitutional scholar, plus our own reading of the most recent Supreme Court case on the matter, support her authority for the crackdown.
Nonetheless, we believe it is bad policy.
A policy like this chills the dissemination to the public of information concerning the City’s affairs. We have been told that some employees are afraid of retribution if they talk. They are circumspect and limit what they say, sometimes saying they cannot discuss certain subjects. Some think the safer course is to say nothing at all.
The policy restricts and has the effect of censoring and sanitizing information provided to the public. It clouds the transparency of City government. It creates mistrust.
Allen Schoenberger, a constitutional law professor at Loyola University, said the policy is “outrageous” for “a progressive city like Evanston.”
Don Craven, the attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said in reference to this policy, “It diminishes the flow of information from the public body to the public. … When all information comes through one source, that’s when bad things start to happen.”
Evanston has traditionally cherished public input and public participation in governmental affairs, and Evanstonians have demanded transparency in government. It is, after all, the people’s government.
Especially troubling is that these restrictions have been imposed at a time when our City is facing many challenges and many important decisions concerning its future: The City is considering a downtown plan; City Council is considering a proposal for a 38-story tower development in the downtown; aldermen are considering whether to rehab the existing Civic Center or to build a new one at costs pegged at about $50 million; the City is considering how to address on a long-term basis unfunded liabilities of $140 million in its police and firefighter pensions. Rather than circling the wagons, the City should promote the free flow of information.
These are matters that will affect all of us for decades to come. The restrictions also coincide with a huge turnover in the City’s administrative staff. By the end of this month, more than 30 employees, including 11 in senior management positions will have taken early retirement or resigned in about a 15-month period.
This raises further concerns about what is happening to our City government.
As a first step in trying to restore openness and transparency to City government, City Council should ask the City Manager to rescind her policy toward City employees’ interaction with the media.