Six candidates vying for three open seats on the Cary Village Board have different opinions on how the village handled a contentious harassment investigation of a village trustee last year.
While incumbents Jim Cosler, Kim Covelli and Ellen McAlpine each feel the village mishandled either the investigation or reacted to it inappropriately, newcomers Tim Ritter, Dale Collier Jr. and Sean Wheeler have said board policy should have stopped the situation before it began, according to their responses to the Northwest Herald’s election questionnaires.
On Jan. 29, 2018, McAlpine filed a written complaint with Mayor Mark Kownick and Village Administrator Jake Rife alleging that Cosler’s behavior for more than a year had been “unwanted, derogatory, unprofessional, disrespectful, libelous and defamatory in nature.” Cosler has claimed the investigation was unwarranted.
“A legal investigation affords a right to due process, and I was denied that right and many others,” Cosler said. “Additionally, the mayor did not follow village code or state statute as they relate to ethics issues.”
Cosler allegedly called McAlpine a felon after a board meeting, and said it disgusted him to even sit by her, McAlpine wrote in her complaint.
“I am disappointed that there is not a policy that covers an elected official’s behavior as this type of conduct would not be acceptable in the private sector, public sector, classroom or board room,” McAlpine said. “My disappointment extends to the elected officials who then wanted to bury and destroy the findings, which certainly does not meet any standard of transparency.”
The village hired Oak Brook-based law firm Engler, Callaway, Baasten & Sraga to conduct an independent investigation into the harassment claim. Attorney Lisa Callaway’s final report concluded that Cosler’s statements at the meeting were “harassing, derogatory and unprofessional.”
However, Chicago-based law firm Rosenthal, Murphey, Coblentz & Donahue produced a second opinion on the report that said Cosler didn’t violate the village’s harassment policy or governing law.
Covelli and Cosler, who campaigned together in 2015, have been at odds with McAlpine since they all were elected the same year. The divide between them expanded in June, when Covelli and Cosler were among the trustees who tried to bury the investigation.
Trustees voted in November to repudiate Callaway’s report – with Cosler and Covelli voting yes and McAlpine voting no.
Now McAlpine, Wheeler and Collier, who have joined forces on a “unity” campaign, say they want to end political polarization on a divided Village Board.
“Simply put: If Cary’s board would have had a code of conduct in place for trustees, it would have been a cut-and-dry process,” Collier said. “Instead, I don’t endorse or support the conduct that occurred after, and I think it showed that we have a need for trustees who are willing to hear and consider an opinion they don’t necessarily agree with.”
Ritter agreed, calling the situation a “disgrace from start to finish” and an “embarrassment to the community.”
“The fact that there were no set procedures for dealing with such an event shows how far behind the times Cary is on several issues,” he said. “Public institutions should have clear and set guidelines for what harassment is and how to conduct oneself in a dignified manner.”
Wheeler’s take on the situation: “I am disappointed it takes the implementation of government ethics policies for individuals to act within a reasonable standard, and I am especially ashamed to think that we had elected trustees discuss in private session to destroy a publicly-paid-for opinion/papers of a legal counsel.”
Covelli and Cosler are campaigning together for the upcoming election. Covelli has been vocal about her concerns that the harassment investigation was an expensive attempt to tarnish Cosler’s name.
“The initial report was finalized with one-sided reporting,” Covelli said. “For starters, only three out of the seven board members were interviewed for this report.”
A separate discussion of transparency involved the village’s social media policy, which the board adopted in February.
In January, the board discussed launching a Facebook page and a social media policy. Last month, the board voted, 5-1, to adopt that policy, which Cosler voted against.
“Unregulated social media posts have caused confusion in our town, so my desire has always been to handle them through a village-designated spokesperson,” Cosler said. “This policy addresses those concerns, and I support that portion of the policy. I voted against the policy due to its overreaching authority over elected officials.”
The page is meant to be static and provide a one-way stream of content. If a visitor violates the social media policy, the village may remove the content, terminate or block the visitor breaking the policy or report that visitor.
Covelli considered the policy a step in the right direction because board members seemed apprehensive about the village’s use of social media when the issue came up in 2015, she said.
“When the issue of Cary revisiting social media was brought forth again, I was immediately in favor of its implementation,” Covelli said. “I am pleased the village of Cary is finally on social media.”
Although the Facebook page is an effective way to reach residents who are online, the village should continue to explore ways to connect with the community as a whole, McAlpine said.
“We have residents who do not use social media, so we need to always be looking for additional ways, such as digital mailing and expanding our cellphone textcaster messaging, as methods to communicate with residents,” McAlpine said.
Collier agreed that social media is only one way the village should continue to communicate with its residents.
“I think it is just one tool in the tool box, but I am very pleased to see that we are offering a new approach to getting village news to our residents,” he said.
Although Ritter and Wheeler aren’t opposed to the village’s use of social media, both candidates have said board members should err on the side of caution, since social media can be a source of misinformation.
“My hope is that these pages become another set of tools to further educate and inform Cary residents with useful information and not a feel-good page that ignores important issues that Cary residents should be informed about,” Ritter said.
Wheeler is pleased to see the community “move into the 21st century,” but warned that social media can be “somewhat unreliable.”
“I believe that in general the village can cultivate a better method of communication that is more encompassing, such as a bigger outreach on digital communicating and cellphone opt-in, as it can get very muddy on the social media sites regarding which post or newsfeed is the honest version of events happening,” he said.