At what was later described as a "private" groundbreaking: Councilwoman Meleesa Johnson, D1, (second from left), and 3rd District Councilwoman Ginger Keymer (second from right) both serve on the 'Friends of Emerson' board. Parks Director Dan Kremer is on the right. (Contributed)

EDITORIAL: Groundbreaking is example of waning transparency in city government

By Brandi Makuski

A good measure of integrity is a politician’s transparency with the press.

On Nov. 7, this publication ran a summarized version of a press release about a substantial donation from the Seramur Family Foundation, and a ceremonial groundbreaking from Friends of Emerson Park. We weren’t immediately able to write a feature story for you because we weren’t invited. Neither was any other journalist.

Ginger Keymer, who is a co-chair of the Friends of Emerson committee—and the elected councilwoman for the city’s 3rd District—confirmed that the group did not invite any trained journalists to the Oct. 29 groundbreaking ceremony, although someone from a local shopper’s guide was there.

“Our intention was to keep it private and to issue a press release this week, once it had been approved by the Seramur Family Foundation. I am not sure who leaked the event to the press. I have a media release drafted for the Seramur Foundation Board to review,” Keymer explained in a Nov. 1 email to the Metro Wire.

The Metro Wire received a slightly expanded version of this explanation from co-chair Meleesa Johnson, city council president and representative of the city’s 5th District (she also recently announced her campaign to challenge Mayor Mike Wiza in April), who told us the same day that she “wasn’t sure what happened. Even though it’s private I probably told too many people. It’s just one of those things.”

Holding a private groundbreaking ceremony in a public park makes no sense. It also begs one question: If something as simple as a public park groundbreaking is being kept private, what else is?

Maybe nothing. That’s not the point. The lack of transparency displayed here—and the indifference expressed by Keymer and Johnson—should be concerning to all.

It’s also another sign that some of our local electeds are comfortable with nebulosity in spite of their public statements to the contrary. Attempting to control a narrative isn’t unusual for any elected, but this group posted about the donation and groundbreaking to its Facebook page on Oct. 30, revealing many of the pertinent details well in advance of the statement Keymer claimed to be awaiting approval on—at least, to those lucky enough to have seen it in their feed (thanks to the secret Facebook algorithm, no one on our staff saw it for several days).

The group sent out its press release on Nov. 2—after the other publication’s piece ran, and the group’s social media post—as though it was tossing scraps to a gaggle of reporters unable to ask follow-up questions or query anyone from the Seramur clan.

Along with Johnson and Keymer, the ‘Friends’ group also contains Judge Patricia Baker, who is elected to the bench in Portage Co. Circuit Court Branch III, and Cindy Nebel and Mike O’Meara, who both previously represented D3 on the city council. So there are plenty of folks involved who have experience working with the press.

A groundbreaking at a public park is what’s known in the news business as “mac n’ cheese journalism”: softer news about neighbors and neighborhoods, but something beyond a hit piece or puff. A groundbreaking ceremony itself is merely a manufactured news event, a ceremonial chance to get your picture taken. However, there is always a story there, in the background—how the event came to be, stories of the people involved, the long road of fundraising, and the constant sacrifices the group undergoes to maintain relationships with patrons because their project relies on public support, and so on.

Bypassing the press is an interesting practice by council leaders who have been demanding across-the-board inclusivity since they were first elected. Sadly, a lack of transparency seems to be something many on this council are not uncomfortable with:

These are just a few of the examples our tiny staff has witnessed firsthand. But practices like these are also common in Park Ridge and at the county government level.

We’re asking the public to be aware of these practices and to be mindful of these concerns in the spring election—which, by the way, is nonpartisan. Despite our community’s polarization, we can all agree that government transparency is vital.