By Tina Richards
Residents of Villa Park took their city council to task for lopsided governance and for putting personal crusades above the business of the city during a heated meeting, Oct. 24.
The meeting, characterized by a councilman delivering remarks as “public comment” and members of the public offering advice and guidance to the mayor, was driven by the perceived inequity in committee assignments and two agenda items that residents found either “retaliatory” or worthy of the district attorney’s attention.
Committee disparity is what drove resident Chris Simpson to the council meeting. He reported that at the last meeting, after he criticized the inequitable makeup of council committees, Mayor Bill Nelson had asked him to suggest an acceptable assignment process. He had done so and offered copies of his draft protocol to each council member. “The city code is silent on committees,” he explained, “so I got help from Google and Atlanta.”
Take one for the team
He suggested that committee assignments be approved by a supermajority (four votes) to “block the tyranny of the majority.” He also stressed that his draft needed editing and suggested that Mayor Nelson team up with Councilman Robbie Pitts to work on it in the interest of bridging the faction gap.
When pressed to respond, Nelson said he would “take it under advisement.”
Councilman Bob Collacott asked to make a public comment (as Pitts had done during the September meeting), and read a statement about the council’s voting record, Diana Fascenelli’s perceived retaliatory nature, Pitt’s refusal to work with other council members, and their attempts to undermine the city’s investment in the strategic plan. He further noted the benefits of the city’s myriad advisory committees, railed against their perceived opposition to them and accused Fascenelli of “political theater.”
Former Mayor Greg Mills pointed out that the political theater began with Collacott and Nelson “digging around in Fascenelli’s health insurance payments.”
It was that “digging around in health insurance payments” that spurred the “retaliation” theme hanging over the two agenda items the public had gathered to hear.
City business or personal agenda?
The first item, requested by council members Fascenelli and Pitts, concerned the filing of city-related insurance claims. The second, requested by Collacott and Vince Rossini, was to rescind insurance benefits offered to current (if reelected) and future council members. Both topics seemed to the public to be indicative of the factionalism that has plagued the council all year, with the latter and Mayor Bill Nelson forming one “side” and Pitts and Fascenelli on the other.
Pitt’s and Fascenelli’s recommendation that the city “require filing of claims with its insurance carrier for all incidents and revise reporting levels to be consistent with state law” was born of a January run-in Bob Collacott had with the electronic gate to the city’s maintenance yard. Depending on who’s telling the story, the councilman had either followed another vehicle through the gate and it closed on him before he cleared it, or the gate was wide open and as he drove through it closed, damaging a tire and quarter panel of his truck.
The city did not investigate the incident, did not file a report or insurance claim, paid Collacott’s damages ($3,500) and repaired the gate. Collacott, along with Mayor Nelson, signed those checks. It was the city’s failure to report or investigate the accident and Collacott’s signature on checks payable to the vendors who repaired his vehicle that caught Pitts' and Fascenelli’s attention. “It’s not about fault,” Fascenelli stressed. “There were no pictures taken, no memos. Policy wasn’t followed. All accidents in the city have been reported to insurance, save one. I’m not blaming Mr. Collacott, I just want to know what happened.”
Torches and pitchforks
Pitts reported that he asked about the consequence of Collacott signing checks that benefited him and was told “it was okay.” “I don’t understand the charges of retaliation,” he said. “It’s about transparency; we have a process to follow.”
But several residents and three- fifths of the council believed the issue was, indeed, raised in retaliation by Fascenelli. In 2016 Nelson and Collacott discovered she was several months behind in payments to the city for health insurance. Nelson took her tardiness directly to the district attorney. The D.A. did not file any charges and Fascenelli paid what she owed, with interest. “This smacks of retaliation,” Rossini insisted.
Most of the audience, however, saw the accident as a reflection on Collacott. Mutterers in the back row countered that he and Rossini were retaliating against Fascenelli for raising the issue by requesting that Villa Park discontinue offering health coverage to council members.
Nelson assured his colleagues and the audience that there was nothing inappropriate about the way the accident was handled, that the interim city manager had reviewed it with the city attorney, alerted the council via a February email and emphasized that he and Collacott were authorized to sign the checks.
Eye of the beholder
Collacott explained that following the accident, he went directly to the interim city manager who told him to buy two new tires and get his quarter panel repaired. It was the interim city manager, he said, who did not file a report, make an insurance claim or document the incident. It was the interim city manager who authorized payment to the tire and body shops.
“There was no malfeasance,” Rossini advised. “I’ve asked the interim city manager, the current city manager, the sheriff. There was a violation of policy, but not the law.”
Amid the debate over what should have happened, but didn’t, why the January incident was being addressed now, who on the counsel was doing the right thing or the wrong thing and why Collacott didn’t reimburse the city, the proceedings were interrupted by a resident. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Jack Ferraro shouted, “go to the D.A. on this.”
A cooler head, Jim Reichert, told the mayor that he had a “problem of trust” and a “problem of retaliation.” He suggested Nelson “show leadership” and take the accident issue to the D.A. Otherwise, “no one’s going to believe what you say.”
“I agree that this is retaliation,” Chris Simpson told the council. “As is item 15 (health benefits). You’re all in the mud together. But there is the appearance of a conflict. Why is a council member signing checks to reimburse himself? That’s what we should be talking about.”
“Distrust will be your downfall,” Howard Kirschner advised the mayor. And to Collacott: “You’ll become mayor. I worry about you. This is a symptom. With all due respect, I have little for you.”
The council could not agree on how to finalize the issue. With Collacott abstaining, the vote to conform with policy, belatedly report the incident to the city’s insurance company and get reimbursed was 2 – 2. “Let’s drop the whole thing,” an exasperated Pitts suggested. “Just fill out an accident report and we’re done.” Nelson and Rossini agreed.
Collacott subsequently removed item 15 from the agenda.
Villa Park constituents call out embattled city council