JOLIET — The president of the city's public access channel said he is the one who decided to pull the plug on televising Thursday's mayoral debate.
“I saw in the paper that the mayor was backing out of the debate and I felt [the debate] was a big setup,” said Dick Schuster, president for Joliet Community Television. “If I don't want to tape it, I don't have to. … I didn't feel it was worth our time.”
Mayor Tom Giarrante announced late last week he was backing out of Thursday's mayoral debate — which was scheduled to be aired by JCTV. The mayor claimed the debate was “manipulated” by his opponent's campaign to “be anything but fair," assertions his opponent and debate organizers disputed.
The public access channel airs City Council meetings on Channel 6 every other week, along with other citywide events.
Schuster said he was informed by City Attorney Martin Shanahan and City Manager Jim Hock a little after 5 p.m. Monday that filming the debate goes against the city's ethics ordinance because JCTV is using city-owned equipment for political purposes.
“We've been doing it for years. I didn't know it was wrong. I didn't know there was a law about it,” Schuster said.
Shanahan said late Tuesday afternoon the “$1 million question” at the time was whether JCTV's equipment is paid for by Joliet or through cable company franchise fees — or an annual fee charged by local government as compensation for use of public property it owns as a right-of-way for cable.
The city's ethics code states that “no officer or employee shall intentionally use any property or resources of the city in connection with any prohibited political activity.”
“I, as legal counsel, was trying to make sure no one, including Channel 6, committed any ordinance violations or ethics,” Shanahan said.
The other $1 million question is who asked Joliet's attorney and city manager to look into the issue. Shanahan said he “doesn't know” why he and Hock spoke with Schuster from JCTV about the ordinance. He said a question came through the city manager's office about the potential ethics violation.
City Manager Jim Hock did not immediately return phone messages left at his office and with his cellphone seeking comment Tuesday.
'Story doesn't add up'
Candace Johnson, one of the debate's lead organizers and member of the St. John's Neighborhood Association, believes Schuster's story doesn't add up.
Johnson said she emailed Joliet Community Television on Monday to discuss specifics ahead of Thursday's event when she discovered the public access channel cancelled plans to televise the debate on Channel 6.
“The first email [from JCTV] stated they were sorry and that this was the first they had even heard of JCTV covering the debate, they didn't even know they were taping for us,” Johnson said. “Then a second one changed stories, saying they are unable to record because they recently discovered it was against the law to air anything related to candidates running for office.”
The first email, sent after 6 p.m. Monday, was signed by both Schuster and Saul Garcia, JCTV vice president. The second, sent just before 9 p.m., was signed by Garcia.
JCTV previously agreed to film the debate, Schuster told The Herald-News on Tuesday, which contradicts the first email sent to Johnson.
When asked about the two emails, Schuster told The Herald-News he “doesn't use email," and that he was already on the fence by that time about televising the debate.
JCTV filmed mayoral forums and individual candidate interviews during the 2011 election.
But Schuster said Tuesday he "didn't feel" the debate will benefit viewers if all candidates were not present.
Schuster said he was not asked by Giarrante or anyone in the mayor's office to not air the event on Channel 6.
Giarrante said Tuesday he “never ordered” anyone from JCTV to pull back.
“I talked to Jim Hock [Tuesday morning] and he told me it's against our city ethics ordinance,” Giarrante said.
Giarrante backed out of the debate on his own accord, leaving his two opponents – Councilman Bob O'Dekirk and Andy Mihelich, chairman of the Joliet Junior College board – to battle it out Thursday.
O'Dekirk announced late Tuesday afternoon he and his political committee will videotape the Thursday event. JCTV is "owned by the taxpayers," O'Dekirk said.
The Joliet mayoral election is April 7.