Political Spat Over Tents, Emails Sets Up Long Election Season | WGLT

Political Spat Over Tents, Emails Sets Up Long Election Season

Aug 10, 2017

It’s going to be an interesting 15 months.

The next general election isn’t until November 2018, and local Republicans are already sparring with Democrats over allegations of campaigning with taxpayer money, dirty tricks, and inappropriate emails.

The spat started Sunday, when a Bloomington resident emailed the entire McLean County Board alleging that County Clerk Kathy Michael’s taxpayer-funded tent at the McLean County Fair featured campaign materials. She’ll face Democratic challenger Nikita Richards next November.

Michael has denied this accusation. The Bloomington resident who lodged it is a Richards supporter.

The photo sent in an email to the entire McLean County Board on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017.

McLean County Board member Chuck Erickson (District 10), also chair of the county’s Republican Party, emailed 12 other county board members about the allegation against Michael. Those emails—and at least one response from Republican county board member Mark Johnson (District 4)—are a potential Open Meetings Act violation, according to County Board Carlo Robustelli, a Democrat from downtown Bloomington (District 8).

“I was shocked and disappointed to see that members of the board were sending contemporaneous emails between a quorum of the board because they may violate the Open Meetings Act,” said Robustelli. “I believe the people’s business should be conducted in the open, not over email.”

McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers confirmed Thursday that he will review the emails to see if an Open Meetings Act violation occurred. That law would prohibit a large group of elected officials from “contemporaneous interactive communication” about public business outside a publicly announced meeting. The emails were first reported Wednesday by The Pantagraph.

Chambers also confirmed that he sent a message to all McLean County Board members reminding them to be cautious about Open Meetings Act issues related to emails.

Which Tent Was It?

The real issue, said Erickson, was that someone took a photo inside the Republican Party’s tent and deliberately tried to mislead people into thinking it was taken inside Michael’s taxpayer-funded tent. The photo of Michael's campaign materials was taken in the Republican tent, not Michael's tent, Erickson said.

McLean County Board members Chuck Erickson, left, and Carlo Robustelli.

“It’s a dirty trick to take a picture in our tent, which you have every right to campaign out of, and argue it was over in another tent,” he said. “To me that’s dishonest. It’s immoral. It’s wrong.”

The original complaint was emailed Sunday to all McLean County Board members by Shayna Watchinski of Bloomington. Watchinski is politically active in Bloomington-Normal and is a strong supporter of Richards’ campaign, according to posts on Watchinski’s Facebook page.

A message left for Watchinski was not immediately returned.

Michael said her tent and the Republican Party's tent were separate. The clerk's staff and volunteers worked only at the clerk's tent, she said, and taxpayer money was not used for campaign handouts.

Michael requested that tent location but would not have known ahead of time that she would be adjacent to the Republican Party's tent, said Mike Swartz, manager of the McLean County Farm Bureau, which runs the fair.

An email from McLean County Board member Carlo Robustelli to one of his constituents who raised concerns about the McLean County clerk's tent at the county fair.

"If anyone knows to keep politics out of government, it’s me, with over 20 years working with both," Michael said in a statement Thursday. Read Michael's full statement to GLT.

Meanwhile, Erickson denied that his emails were an Open Meetings Act violation.

“As party chairman, I have the right to defend Republicans,” Erickson said. “My communications were political in nature. And I actually signed one of those emails as Party Chairman.”

“You can’t discuss county business,” he added. “You can discuss politics. And I did discuss politics. … I’m never going to apologize for pointing out immoral behavior.”

It's Election Season

The dispute comes as McLean County’s two major political parties gear up for a heated 2018 campaign. Earlier this year, local Democrats rebounded from the President Donald Trump’s election by winning several seats in Normal Township, including the supervisor position. McLean County Democrats are now backing Richards in her bid to unseat Michael as county clerk.

Democrats may sense an opening in other races too; the McLean County Board’s Republican vice chair, Jim Soeldner of Ellsworth (District 2), will face a Democratic challenge from David Siebert in 2018.

Local Republican leaders have taken notice. In a Facebook post last month, the local party said "Republicans in rural McLean County, Downs, Bellflower, Saybrook, LeRoy, etc., need to step up and volunteer and help Jim Soeldner."

"(Soeldner) has a Democrat opponent and Democrats are making a run at winning county board seats," the post read.

The fair tent dispute is an example of local Democrats “trying to get a negative advantage on Kathy Michael,” Erickson told GLT. He declined to say who he thought was behind the original complaint.

“Let’s just say I’m putting a case together,” he said.

Robustelli denied political motivations for sending the original complaint—which was sent to all county board members—to other county officials. (Full disclosure: Robustelli previously worked as GLT’s development director before leaving earlier this year for a job at Illinois Wesleyan University.)

Based on available evidence, Robustelli said he doesn’t think Michael used taxpayer money for campaigning.

“I think this was a misunderstanding. It was cleared up through the natural process,” Robustelli said.

Michael blamed Robustelli for his role in the spat, saying it's "politics displayed at its worst."

"Facts matter, and so do reputations," Michael said. "The fact that Mr. Robustelli made no attempt to find out the facts before demanding an investigation for political gain and wasting taxpayer dollars is not what we should expect from a county board member. McLean County is not Chicago."

Robustelli still has concerns about Erickson’s emails, particularly the blurry lines between Erickson’s role as a county board member and local Republican Party chairman.

“It’s hard to tell who (Erickson is) representing and when,” he said.

In a statement Thursday on Facebook, Richards defended Robustelli and said Erickson's emails were the problem, "not some debacle about a tent."

"Just what we needed: More us-against-them rhetoric. More divisiveness. More upstate vs. downstate politics," Richards said.

You can also listen to the full segment from Friday's GLT's Sound Ideas:

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