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Councilman in awkward position

Joe Scarbeary wears two hats with the Streator city government — councilman and firefighter. This puts him in an awkward position at times.
Joe Scarbeary wears two hats with the Streator city government — councilman and firefighter. This puts him in an awkward position at times.

Streator Fire Department's union is in a battle royal with city administration over issues such as its pension fund and emergency response duties.

Kurt Snow, the union's president, is a vocal advocate for his fellow firefighters. He has been effective in spreading the word of the union's positions, particularly on social media.

It seems as if the ranks are behind him. One of his fellow firefighters is Joe Scarbeary, who was elected to the City Council last year.

Under a quirk in Illinois law, firefighters can serve on city councils where they work. This presents inevitable conflicts of interest when dealing with issues involving the fire department, something Scarbeary has recognized from the beginning.

Last week, Scarbeary sat out a closed session of the council while his colleagues discussed collective bargaining with the fire union. Given he is a member of the union, it would be a conflict of interest for him to help guide the city's legal strategy. After all, the union's agreement with the city likely will affect his personal finances.

On Facebook this week, Streator firefighter Eric Hoffmeyer asked Scarbeary about his decision to sit out the closed meeting.

"Joe Scarbeary, as an elected councilman for the city of Streator, could you explain why you were not in executive session when these issues were discussed? Did you voluntarily excuse yourself or were you asked by the city manager and other council members not to attend?"

Scarbeary seemed to take offense at the question.

"That makes sense. Attack the one person who has done nothing but support the police and fire department. What did other council members say to you? Oh, wait. You don't like politics nor would you ever call them out. Really?"

Hoffmeyer said he only asked a question and had not discussed the matter with other council members. He acknowledged he dislikes politics, saying politicians dance around questions. He said Scarbeary failed to answer his query.

Scarbeary replied he was allowed by law to attend the meeting, but stepped outside upon Mayor Jimmie Lansford's request.

"I asked before I left if the meeting would be productive to solving a particular issue. He said yes. I took him at his word. I don't know what was said and couldn't comment anyway," Scarbeary wrote.

There's no denying Scarbeary is in an awkward position — he's wearing two conflicting hats. He knew this ahead of time.

Career politicians

In the Democratic race for District 76 state representative, Ottawa's Lance Yednock holds a big lead in fundraising. He is getting a few thousand dollars from unions every few days.

So far, I've gotten hold of three of his mailers, those glossy, letter-sized fliers that every candidate with serious money sends.

He hopes to prevail in the March 20 Democratic primary over Jill Bernal, of Peru, and then defeat Rep. Jerry Long, R-Streator, in the general election.

Two of Yednock's fliers stress he is not one of those dreaded "career politicians." Maybe that's true, but no one can dispute House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who likely backs Yednock, has pursued politics as a career.

The speaker, who also heads the state Democratic Party, usually doesn't issue formal endorsements in primary elections. But all Yednock's union money is a good indication Madigan and company stand behind the Ottawan.

In fairness, Yednock is by no means alone in rejecting the career politician label. That antipathy toward professional politicians goes back to the concept of citizen leaders such as George Washington, who served eight years and went home, never to return to public service.

Be careful before you knock all career politicians, whose ranks once included Abraham Lincoln. It helped to have a president with political experience during the Civil War.

With that in mind, let's accept the premise that Yednock is not a career politician. It's always nice to have a fresh set of eyes in Springfield. But if he is elected state rep, he'll become accustomed to the traditions of the state capital. And if he's there long enough, he may become one of those stereotypical politicians he laments.

  • David Giuliani is a reporter for The Times. His weekly column "As It Is" expands upon regular news coverage by adding his insight and ideas. He can be reached at 815-431-4041 or davidg@mywebtimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tt_dgiuliani.
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