A Riverside village board meeting that promised to be a pretty pedestrian affair turned suddenly contentious on Feb. 21 when Trustee Jean Sussman accused Village President Michael Gorman of “misuse of public funds” by using the village’s bi-monthly newsletter to “chastise fellow trustees.”
Residents received the February/March newsletter, called Riverside Review, in their most recent water bill envelopes. On the first page of the newsletter is a piece by Gorman titled, “Continuing Forward,” which touts Gorman’s efforts to build relationships with business and other government leaders as well as his recent appointment to the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).
But that information took a back seat to a personal message Gorman sent to fellow board members, specifically ones who have continued to oppose legislation the board has already passed.
Without taking direct aim at anyone or any topic, Gorman wrote that “once the village board makes a decision on behalf of all of us, we need to make it work and move ahead. Hanging on to ‘My way is right’ is not in the best interests of the village. There are just too many challenges still facing Riverside in today’s economic environment to put one’s personal point of view over the entire community.”
Gorman on Feb. 21 declined to state specifically to whom he was referring in the letter, saying only that “I’m referring to members of the board.”
“As a board member, as a trustee, you should always try to influence those decisions for the best interests of the village,” he added. “But when the board makes a decision, it’s time to move on.”
But it seems clear that Gorman was aiming his comments at Trustee Ben Sells, who has asked the board to consider reversing its decision to dissolve the Parks and Recreation Board in light of an advisory referendum in November. Sussman has sided with Sells with regard to the issue, as has Trustee John Scully.
The village board is expected to vote on Sells’ proposal in March.
Sussman denounced Gorman’s use of the newsletter to single out political opponents, particularly during an election season. Sells and Sussman are running for re-election in April, unopposed.
“Using this publicly funded village review as a bully pulpit, especially during an election cycle, is unacceptable,” Sussman said. “I’m especially disappointed because Mr. Gorman and I have been working together on several policy initiatives. I had hoped that President Gorman’s behavior was in the past. It is not.
“I really truly believe that if we are to move forward for the benefit of all Riverside residents then we need to treat each other with respect, and this is a misuse of public funds.”
Trustee Mark Shevitz sought a definition of “misuse of public funds” from the village attorney, but Scully responded that while the letter may not constitute misuse of funds, it was a bad idea anyway.
“This wasn’t a misuse of public funds, Mike. This was just bad form,” Scully said. “In the 10 years I’ve sat up here, I’ve never seen that newsletter used to chastise trustees. It was bad form at best. But then I considered the source, and I threw it in the waste basket.”
Gorman offered an apology, but immediately backed away from it, admitting he meant what he said.
“If anyone’s taken offense I’m sorry, if I’ve offended you,” Gorman said. “What I said I meant, and if you feel it applies to any of you, anybody’s behavior up here, I can’t help that.”
Sussman called the letter an attempt to “bully” other board members.
“You continue to try to bully us, Mike, and it just doesn’t work,” Sussman said. “Now you’re using a public newsletter, edited by the village manager and by his assistant to chastise us publicly during an election cycle. Michael, what are you thinking about? How can you say you want to work with us and behave this way?”
Kevin Smith, a former village trustee who lost a bid for village president to Gorman in 2009, spoke up, calling the letter inappropriately political.
“This is partisan. This is all RCA stuff,” Smith said, referring to the board majority’s political party, the Riverside Community Alliance.
“As a taxpayer, I said, ‘This is my tax dollars and you’re talking to me,'” Smith added. “And what you’re saying is, when the four of you make a decision, the rest of us should just shut up and move on.”
But Gorman did not back down from his position and said the letter had nothing to do with the upcoming election.
“I’m not going to debate your points,” Gorman said. “If you think I was misusing it to chastise you, that’s your point of view. I don’t know what an election cycle has to do with that. I think that is something I would have said at any point in time.”