Does Joliet city government need an image upgrade?

Hiring of a “public relations manager” is one issue in 2022 budget debate

The Joliet City Council at its 2022 budget meeting this week debated whether the city should hire a “public relations manager.”

It was an interesting choice of words and not necessarily a matter of semantics.

The debate centered on whether city government needs someone to promote the city’s image, or, as its advocates say repeatedly, “tell our story.”

But this is not what people in a government role of providing information should be doing. That may be why they have the titles of public information officer or director of communications, not public relations or public relations director as the potential $90,000 position was termed during the debate on Monday.

The advocates for the position, Mayor Bob O’Dekirk and City Manager James Capparelli, are correct that other cities and bodies of government the size of Joliet typically have someone in this role. As the mayor pointed out, Joliet had someone in that position until the city cut staff in 2008 because of the recession.

But the role of a public information officer in government should not be to polish up the image of city hall or “tell our story” the way political leaders want it told. The person in this position primarily should be the key person in distributing correct information to the public, including the media.

O’Dekirk in his comments argued that the public is not hearing about how much economic development occurs in the city. He claims that two city managers have been amazed at negative media coverage and opined that “local papers do nothing but trash the city” – an opinion that coincides with that of the mayor’s view of The Herald-News.

I’ll leave it up to our readers to decide if The Herald-News does “nothing but the trash the city.” I’ve been told The Herald-News is too soft on local government. I can’t think of anyone other than Mayor O’Dekirk who has told me we were too harsh.

Hopefully, if the city hires a “public relations manager,” that person won’t be told to stonewall the media seeking information that may not reflect well on city hall.

Capparelli in March and again in June tried to get council approval for a public relations manager and was turned down. Then, however, there was the issue of hiring someone for a newly created position while the city had not filled 26 positions, including several in the police department, because of 2021 budget concerns. Those positions are getting filled in 2022, and Capparelli’s proposed budget included 34 new jobs.

Just what the public relations manager may be doing may be one of the issues.

“I know who you had in mind. I don’t agree with that,” Council member Jan Quillman said to Capparelli at one point during the debate on Monday. “I think it should be someone who has experience in public relations and not just someone who wants a job.”

True enough, although Quillman’s comment also makes you wonder who’s been lined up for the job and why.

Bob Okon

Bob Okon

Bob Okon covers local government for The Herald-News