I think anyone who has served in public office is very much aware of the threats that often come from those who strongly disagree on controversial issues. I remember an incident many years ago when a citizen got so angry at Mayor Gary Anderson that he punched him in the stomach and called him a “fat pig” at one point during a meeting at the civic center. During my conversation with Mayor Anderson a few days after “the punch” it was apparent that it had affected him emotionally more than physically. I think when people give their time and talents to serve in public office, especially at the local level, the motivation is usually one of “giving back to the community”.
Getting punched in the stomach and being called a nasty name is not the “recognition” anyone seeks in running for and serving in public office. Look back in our city’s history and it is not too difficult to find some threats and actual fistfights that broke out between officials and private citizens — and between political rivals. All of that without the benefit of all the social media to inflame emotions and escalate threats.
During the years I served as mayor, there were a couple of times that threats got so serious that a court order was issued to keep one particular man at least 100 yards away from me at all times. He was showing up at the newspaper, the council chambers and several others places where I was and using the opportunity to threaten me. Decatur Police Officer Glenn Spain told me the guy had moved here from another state and had a nasty record of offenses. Our newspaper offices were on the first floor of the building on North Park Street during the years I served as mayor and Glenn made it a point to keep an eye on our building as he moved through the community in his policing duties. He would usually peck on the windows of my office to let me know that he was looking out for me and I appreciated it.
• WHEN I worked late at the newspaper office and started to leave the building and get into my car, there would sometimes be someone who had waited in Central Park across the street for me to appear and they would either start yelling at me, or demand a few minutes of my time, or start heading towards me in an intimidating way. Fortunately, I was never physically assaulted when those confrontations took place, but, looking back I was braver then than I would be now — especially with all of the craziness that’s been going on in our community and across the nation the past few years. One time, City Manager Steve Garman and I met with the state’s attorney personnel about threats we received from a company executive which were concerning to both of us — enough so that we thought we should make that contact with the state’s attorney’s office.
• USUALLY, when there was a controversial decision that was going to be voted on during the city council meeting, three city police officers were in the council chambers instead of the normal one who was present at “normal” council sessions. While two of the officers faced the council, one of the officers sat behind the city manager and faced the audience to keep an eye on anyone who might be making a threatening move towards the mayor, council members or city manager.
During one council meeting, the man who had a court order to stay away from me issued against him showed up at the meeting and sat down in the front row! He was also carrying a bag which made me wonder if he might have a weapon inside of it. I kept an eye on him during the meeting and, believe it or not, he fell asleep and slept through most of the meeting. (It was a long meeting.) He awoke when I adjourned the council meeting and everyone got up and started to leave. He picked up his bag and left, leaving me wondering what he might have done had he stayed awake.
• LAST WEEK, a Savoy man was arrested because police said he sent threatening emails to Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen. Michael Miller, 54, is in the Champaign County Jail on a Class X felony charge as I’m writing this column — being held on $1 million dollar bond. A Champaign Police report indicated that detectives began investigating “hundreds, if not thousands” of emails that Mayor Feinen had received over many months, several of which were threatening in nature but not directed at her personally. According to the News/Gazette “The charge for which he’s being held alleged that on July 24, he sent an email to Feinen that contained information threatening a mass shooting that would occur at First and Green streets in Campustown.”
• ALTHOUGH I can’t really say that I ever feared for my life during the years I was mayor, despite the vicious threats from time to time, I think I would be more cautious if I was mayor today instead of several years ago. The threats and intimidation never caused me to change my vote or regret ever running and serving as mayor.
• I ENJOYED being in the city’s parades when I was mayor. It was always nice to be able to see all of the parade goers who lined our downtown streets, but there was a vulnerable side to that mayoral duty. I distinctly remember, during one parade, when the convertible I was riding in was approached by a woman who was very upset about something the city was doing — or not doing. The parade paused and the car I was in stopped in front of the post office. When the angry woman saw me sitting in the back seat of the convertible, she broke free from the crowd and headed for me with a mean look on her face and her finger pointing at me! She yelled something that I couldn’t understand which was probably just as well. I think I was right in assuming that she wasn’t yelling compliments to me.
About the time she reached the car to get only a few feet away from me the parade started up again and we moved on. She backed off and headed back to her position in front of the post office. While it was somewhat distracting at the time (I still remember that mean and mad look) in today’s crazy world, if I was still in office, I probably would be looking for a gun in her hand as she headed for me!
• A FEW YEARS after I left the mayor’s office a sitting councilman told me that, with the increasing reports of public officials being shot at (news reports of that time) he had the mindset that, during a council meeting, if someone entered the chamber and started shooting, he was going to dive under the council console because he thought the wood was thick enough to protect him from any bullets! The fact that a public official had to even consider such actions speaks volumes about the world we live in today and how some people not only get upset but manifest it in ways I never imagined in my early years of covering city government.
• ALTHOUGH serving in public office always results in some people disagreeing with your position, and sometimes getting downright nasty about it, I think the overall aggressiveness and rudeness that we see in today’s society make public service concerns for safety more understandable and justified. There just seems to be a much higher level of rudeness on the road and in about every aspect of life. The increasing violence that we are witnessing in our community and across the nation is testimony that “disagreements” on issues can today turn “dangerous” for public officials and private citizens. It doesn’t take much to make people mad these days and the political divide in our nation doesn’t help.
Anyone who is seriously considering running for public office today — at any level — needs to factor into that decision their feelings about their safety and the safety of their family. My years as Decatur’s mayor were filled with a lot of hard work and long hours as I was also publishing this newspaper at the same time. When I decided to run I knew it was going to be hard work and even longer hours, but I really didn’t consider the “danger” I might be putting myself and my family in by stepping up to serve.
If I was thinking about running for mayor today, potential danger would certainly be part of the consideration in seeking office. This is a different time than it was when I was running for the mayor’s office for the first term in 2002. The pandemic and political divide have made many citizens less tolerant and more aggressive in expressing their views.
May God Bless and protect our mayor, city council members and those among us who step forward to serve our community on various boards and committees.
• THE LAKEVIEW High School All School Reunion is set for August the 20th. It starts at 5:00 PM at the Mt. Zion Convention Center. Happy Hour is from 5PM to 6PM. Dinner is being catered by Nelson’s Catering and it starts at 6PM. There will be a DJ. Admission is $25.00 per person and includes dinner. Tickets can be purchased by mailing a check or money order made payable to LHS All Class Reunion and sending it to Sharon Law 715 Cortez Drive, Forsyth, IL 62535 or tickets can be purchased at the door before 6PM.
Sharon Law, who contacted me about the reunion, stated: “Lakeview opened in 1950 and closed in 1982 when ADM purchased the building. It has been 40 years since the school closed. So far almost 400 people have purchased tickets to attend the reunion. It is amazing to see where they are currently living. It is also heartwarming to see how many people who have graduated from LHS in the fifties will be attending. “There is a list of all of the people who have purchased tickets and the city and state they live in on the website Lakeview Alumni.”
When I became editor and publisher of this newspaper in 1969 we had four public high schools in Decatur: Lakeview, Stephen Decatur, Eisen-hower and MacArthur. Lakeview and Stephen Decatur now live on in local history — and in the memories of those who attended school in those buildings. Several high school class reunions have been taking place this summer. We’ve printed information on the others that we know about in recent editions of the Trib.
• I JOIN Brian Byers on WSOY’s Byers & Co. every Thursday morning at 7:00 for the City Hall Insider.