On February 3, 2020, six of the seven Decatur City Council members (Councilman Rodney Walker was absent) gathered to consider a proposal to restrict public comment regarding city annexation of territory and its impact on the reporting of the population on the 2020 Census. Some believe that the policy of annexation is being used as a means to hide evidence of declines in population that might otherwise affect the allocation of resources and political representation. In fact, The New York Times recently published an article entitled “For Shrinking Cities, an Aggressive Way to Dodge the Census Bullet.”
Around two dozen individuals presented their perspectives to the council that night, arguing both about the annexation policy itself and about restricting public comment. Many of those present voiced their opposition to this plan:
“That’s the escalation of a war. I wonder if you really recognize that you are taking the next step in a war in this city?,” asked Decatur City Council member John Phillips. Eric Summerlott, a community member present at the meeting, added “if this is class war, remember who fired the first shots, because it wasn’t us.” And Decatur City Council candidate Marc Girdler declared, “The citizens of Decatur are growing hungry and we will not eat cake!” These statements highlight the increasing sense of animosity and disconnect between some representatives of the City Council and the average citizens of Decatur. Things appear to be moving from a state of near-constant conflict to outright class warfare.
What we are seeing in Decatur is a twofold strategy of control: the privileging of powerful interests over the needs of average citizens, and the curtailing of opportunities for voicing alternative perspectives. The proposal to restrict public comment on the annexation reflects a larger pattern of efforts of some on the council to these ends. During the February 3 meeting, community member Brett Robertson acknowledged these issues when he noted that “public trust in this council is at a low point. Many citizens are concerned that the council pays undue attention to a few powerful interests to the exclusion of most citizens. … The worst possible action the council can take is to further undermine public trust, and that’s what this proposed change would do.”
Community member Robertson was alluding to a recent story in The Intercept entitled “How Howard Buffett Helped Block a Pot Dispensary,” describing a $500,000 donation from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation being used to influence the Decatur City Council against the legalization of cannabis sales. The story reported that the donation was used to hire and train police officers to draw blood to test drivers for THC. As THC can remain in the bloodstream for weeks, this is not an effective measure of actual driving impairment. Members of The Decatur Dispensary Project view this effort as attempts by Buffet to use intimidation and legalized bribery to undercut the interests of average citizens.
Other evidence of disconnect between several council members and Decatur citizens lies in accusations of corruption and calls for resignation of various Decatur public officials. There are three declared anti-corruption candidates for Decatur City Council’s 2021 election: Marc Girdler, John Phillips, Jr., and Will Wetzel.
The proposal to restrict public comment on the annexation issue was opposed by Councilmen Bill Faber and David Horn. Council candidate John Phillips, Jr. was unable to attend the meeting, but he too opposed the measure. Despite this, and overwhelming public opposition, the council voted to restrict citizen public comment. Afterwards, Faber and Horn were verbally berated by Councilman Pat McDaniel, who allegedly voted for the restriction of public comment in the name of civility.
Members of the four-person majority in the council vote have a history of uncivil conduct. As Eric Summerlott pointed out, “we have had disgusting, vile comments leveled at the most at-risk members of our citizenry, who are members of your citizenry! You work for them too, even if they are houseless! That’s how this works! It’s not who buys to have a membership in the City of Decatur!” This was in reference to an insensitive conspiracy theory espoused by Councilman Chuck Khule, in which he accused houseless panhandlers in Decatur of tax evasion, as documented in a city council video published by Love Decatur on Facebook.
It was therefore suspect that the council voting majority argued that restricting public comments would somehow improve the civility of public discourse. Further, Aida Owens pointed out that they “already have a mechanism in place if it’s about folks being vulgar and out of order, so forth and so on. It’s in Chapter 6.” Owens was apparently referring to an existing city statute.
Donations like that provided by the Buffett Foundation are one means of influencing local policy. Another lies in the restriction of independent media and other voices. In Kingston, New York, Warren Buffett’s other son Peter Buffett financed a local “independent” radio station to the tune of a $500,000 grant for 24/7 coverage to promote the efforts of his NoVo Foundation. In Decatur, local media already slants towards defending the City Council, who are on the public record as beholden to Buffett.
The working and marginalized people of Decatur have the audacity to want independent journalism and fair representatives who will listen to them, even when they don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to contribute. Speaking towards this point, Renee Verry said, “you owe them the right to be heard. You owe them respect, to be listened to, because that is your duty. And when that becomes too burdensome and tedious for you to handle, then you should resign.” Decatur City Council candidate Will Wetzel commented that “[not] allowing for citizen input, except for who you want, puts us in a situation that you continue to create an oligarchy that does not serve the people of Decatur.”
After the vote, Decatur City Council candidate Marc Girdler filed a Request for Review of Section 3.5(a) of the Open Meetings Act. The Attorney General’s office responded that “The Public Access Bureau has determined that further action is warranted.” The City of Decatur is now investing public resources into defending their actions to the State of Illinois, all to exclude their citizenry from input at city council meetings. Wetzel also expressed concerns about these imminent legal costs: “you are going to be taking our money to hold up the will of the four people that are sitting here. And it is absolutely fiscally irresponsible and you need to take that into account.”
Lack of critical media coverage is also being answered by the emergence of independent groups such as Love Decatur, the Greater Decatur Black Chamber of Commerce, and DPL Watchdogs (on Facebook, here) working together to combine their voices. The caliber of working-class independent data they present is incredible given the social isolation that they have all faced. In particular, DPL Watchdogs, which, as of this reporting, has 24 followers on Facebook, had their work cited in the aforementioned piece in The Intercept.
The Decatur City Council majority vote’s move also follows alleged technical issues which conveniently muted audio from the Decatur City local government TV channel for weeks in 2019, and likely extended through the Decatur Federation of Teaching Assistants strike. The strike and continued struggle of the Decatur Federation of Teaching Assistants will be covered in “Decatur Demagoguery: Part 2—School Board.”
Allan Axelrod is a member of the Champaign-Urbana Democratic Socialists of America, with a background in data aggregation for local government offices and activist groups.