THE ISSUE: Union not behind Streator referendum, despite city manager’s claims
OUR VIEW: Long past time for administration, union to work toward a detente
The shortest route from City Hall in Streator, a few paces east of the Vermilion River, to the equivalent in Danville, the seat of Vermilion County, is 127 miles.
Streator City Manager Scot Wrighton and Mayor Jimmie Lansford made that drive in June. Danville officials invited Wrighton and Lansford to speak at a community forum as the city’s residents prepare for a vote on whether to shift to the council-manager form of government Streator adopted in 1986.
There’s no shading the nature of the trip. Danville is considering a serious change — the current mayor is in his 15th year and the man before him served for 16 — and Wrighton and Lansford are certainly positioned to explain how the format works. Given the distance between the two communities, it would be unlikely for a Danville resident to see the Streator duo as anything other than a dispassionate delegation, precisely what would be needed for such a presentation.
But what happens in Danville doesn't stay in Danville, and so Wrighton found himself — again — the center of a bit of a brouhaha for remarks he made that misrepresented the firefighters union regarding an upcoming public vote on whether Streator should do away with the use of a city manager.
Speaking in Danville, Wrighton explained some Streatorites complain about the current form, despite pre-1986 mismanagement and corruption as well as a failed 1992 referendum, and suggested the current ballot issue arose from people with “some other agenda.”
“The City Council, struggling with issues of pensions and staffing issues, has gotten itself into a dispute with its local firefighters' union and so they decided that the way to deal with that problem is to put the council-manager form on the ballot,” Wrighton said to the crowd.
The union, long at odds with Wrighton over a variety of issues, clapped back, reaching out to media to note firefighters “had discussions and we came to a unanimous decision that the city manager form of government works perfectly fine in the city of Streator,” according to President Kurt Snow.
Also irked was Larry Thomas, the Streator business owner who circulated petitions for the referendum in March and saw the process through to its formal ballot approval in June.
“My referendum efforts are being used by others to fight a different fight,” Thomas said on Twitter Tuesday. “I have absolutely no ‘skin in (that) game.’ I have paid for all the legal fees and filing fees with the courts out of my own pockets. I started this effort in September 2017 by myself. To try to say anyone other than me started this referendum is totally untrue, and I don't appreciate the assumptions from anyone.”
Wrighton now is searching for the high road, saying he was glad to hear the union backs the status quo. But he also told The Times his statement in Danville came from secondhand reports of social media posts connected to firefighters and their family members. That’s a far cry from the union taking a formal stance — and even farther from saying the union itself was behind the effort, when the entire paper trail could be traced directly to Thomas.
Beyond that, even if the issue were being discussed on Facebook or Twitter, is that a problem? The firefighters and their families are Streator residents. There is no rule forcing spouses to vote in lockstep, nor is there a prohibition on an individual discussing matters relative to their employment, their property taxes or — in the case of a firefighter — both.
Snow said the union didn’t plan to make a formal statement on the referendum for concern of conflating it with ongoing labor disputes. Had Wrighton chosen his words more carefully, those concerns might not hang in the Streator air this week.
We’ve long said something must change to end the simmering tensions between City Hall and the fire station, and encourage everyone involved to work toward that goal. As such, we agree with reader Jim Johnson, who noted city leaders and firefighters “should negotiate at a table instead of using the media outlets.”
That said, we award bonus points to Snow for icing that cake with his retort:
“The table is surely not in Danville.”