Two Lakewood trustees file complaint about village’s bid to hire marketing firm

An effort by the village of Lakewood to find marketing services has led two trustees to file to a formal complaint with the state’s Office of the Inspector General.

This complaint, filed Saturday by Lakewood Trustee Bryan Younge on behalf of himself and Trustee Amy Odom alleges that village officials want to use the marketing services to help with their image as officials.

The complaint ties the timing of the request for proposals being announced to the beginning of the campaign for the village president and three trustee seats up this April.

Younge and Odom recently filed a lawsuit claiming they are being denied information critical to their jobs as trustees, in retaliation for investigating claims of a hostile work environment in Lakewood.

Village President Phil Stephan, in an interview with the Northwest Herald, emphatically denied that the village’s search for a marketing firm has anything to do with the election.

“To try and turn [this] political, that’s ridiculous,” Stephan said. 

Stephan said hiring a firm had previously been talked about at strategic planning meetings in May and October 2019.

One conclusion of these meetings was that the village wanted to improve its public perception and customer service, he said, with the biggest concern being that Lakewood needs to improve its communication.

In addition, Stephan said, the webpage is outdated. 

“Our newsletters and our website needs a facelift because we’re doing a lot of great things and residents don’t know what’s going on,” Stephan said. 

Younge said initial discussions about the firm were high-level conversations on what the village could do to improve its marketability.

In the complaint, Younge and Odom argued that the initiative has now been repurposed for political gain and campaigning purposes.

This past summer, allegations of harassment, malfeasance and intimidation by Stephan and the village’s chief administrative officer, Jeannine Smith, came to light after past and current employees were interviewed by trustees and the Northwest Herald.

Because of this, the officials’ reputations have been tarnished, Younge said in the complaint.

In an interview with the Northwest Herald, he said the timing of the request for proposals, as well as the way it is written, makes it seems like it is just a way to make village officials look good, deflect criticism on social media and freshen up their image.

In the complaint, Younge and Odom requested a review of the request for proposals document and what they called the “peculiar timing” of its release, among other things.

The Inspector General’s Office could not be reached for comment.

In the request for proposals, the village said it is looking for a marketing firm to design and implement a strategic outreach plan, as well as create materials for Lakewood’s programs and initiatives.

Listed in the “challenges in marketing initiatives” section is “public perception.”

“There is concern with harm caused by uneducated posts to social media,” the request said.

Stephan said the problem with social media is if someone puts something out there and even if it is proven wrong, people “never remove” the post.

Using language like uneducated social media posts, Younge argued in the complaint, is not in any resident’s best interest.

“Neither Amy Odom nor I have seen or approved the language that has been promulgated, which is in violation of village code,” Younge said in the complaint. 

Younge said what had been talked about in the past was marketing centered around how to make Lakewood an attractive option for people to move and to build homes.

“Social media has nothing to do with that,” he said. “Social media has everything to do with the image of the people that are running the village, and it’s as problematic as it can possibly get.”

Other issues Odom and Younge raised were that the contract proposed in the request for proposals would be two years, extending beyond when Stephan’s term ends, and that a marketing firm was not included in the village budget.

Stephan said the Village Board can amend the budget throughout the year.

“Any and all expenditures are voted on at a public meeting by the board,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re buying a truck. It doesn’t matter if we’re buying software. It doesn’t matter if we’re hiring a service.”

He insisted nothing out of the ordinary is going on.

“I guess haters are going to hate,” Stephan said.

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