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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006 06:58 pm

Talking head

A few aldermen take aim at mayoral mouthpiece Ernie Slottag

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Communications Director Ernie Slottag: “My job is to pass out and spread information about the city, make sure that people understand what we’re doing.”
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE
Springfield is not a particularly large city — the sixth-biggest, ranked by population, in Illinois. There is one local television station and one daily newspaper. The mayor earns nearly $105,000 a year, or nearly $1 for every man, woman and child who lives within the city limits. Some members of the City Council are asking why a city with these stats needs Ernie Slottag. Although he’s often called spokesman for Mayor Tim Davlin, Slottag’s official job title is communications director. When the mayor has something to say, he typically lets Slottag do the talking. Last year, Slottag was quoted well over 100 times in the State Journal-Register on subjects ranging from the mundane (e.g., the purchase of a desk, sofa, and other office furniture for the city utility department, for instance) to the critically important (the city’s record in hiring minorities). Quotes from Slottag sometimes make good head-scratchers. After more than a decade on the city payroll, he’s as good as any politician at saying stuff that can interpreted in any number of ways. He can also render inoperative what has previously been said. Consider, for example, what he told the daily newspaper in December when asked about the city’s hiring practices in the police and fire departments: “The mayor is proud of his hiring record. [Police Chief] Don Kliment, the fire chief, they’re not recruiters, and they’ve failed miserably, we’ve failed miserably, in trying to get minorities into those . . . positions.” Then there was Slottag letting the world know that the mayor took a drug test last month, just days after the SJ-R lit a firestorm by reporting that an elected official, initially unnamed, was somehow involved in a cocaine investigation (so far, no politician has been arrested or charged). Slottag first insisted that Davlin’s test was routine and part of a new random drug-testing program for top city officials that had been in the works for some time. “The coincidence is amazing,” he said. Three days later, the communications director admitted that Davlin had responded to pressure applied by a radio talk-show host, who’d been asking when elected officials would submit to tests: “It [the test] wasn’t random, but it was impromptu. [The mayor] just thought to himself, ‘I’ll just go and get tested and be done with it.’” In dozens of other cases, when the heat is turned up, Slottag — not the mayor — is offered up for public consumption. Take an Illinois State Police investigation of city police detectives accused of misconduct. Two detectives have been placed on administrative leave; investigators are trying to determine whether they committed crimes. Slottag said that the mayor knew about the investigation, and that’s about all he’d say. “I don’t know what the allegations are,” he said. Then he professed that he did know something: “It’s really an internal issue, a personnel issue.” But the investigation goes far beyond personnel manuals — criminal cases have been dismissed because the detectives in question provided false information in sworn testimony. They once said that they’d found evidence against a suspect in a curbside trash can that later proved fictitious: The suspect did not have trash-collection service. And if it’s just a personnel matter, why are the state police conducting the investigation? “I can’t for the life of me think of why he gets a paycheck from the city,” says Ald. Joe Bartolomucci, who has proposed eliminating Slottag’s job. “I have seen Mayor Davlin, time and time again, really out there sinking under the weight of some discrepancies or miniature scandal, if you will, and Ernie’s right there to throw him an anchor. What he really is is the mayoral spokesman. About 80 percent of that is political and really running interference for the mayor.” Slottag says he does a lot of stuff behind the scenes that few folks notice, such as managing the city’s Web site, writing press releases, and otherwise getting information to the public. “I don’t do political stuff on government time,” he says. “My job is to pass out and spread information about the city, make sure that people understand what we’re doing.” Davlin has vowed to keep Slottag no matter what. After Bartolomucci proposed eliminating money for Slottag’s job from the budget, the mayor sent a memo to council members warning that he’d cut two audiovisual technicians from the city’s communication department before putting Slottag on the street. That, the mayor asserted, would mean deep cuts in communication services, including eliminating closed captioning from televised City Council meetings so that the hearing-impaired can keep track of city business. At least part of the mayor’s threat seems idle, given that the Federal Communications Commission requires closed captioning for televised meetings. Nonetheless, Davlin held sway during Tuesday’s council meeting, when the council voted 6-4 to keep money for Slottag in the budget. He’ll earn $72,170 in the next fiscal year, which starts March 1. Ald. Frank Kunz, who voted to keep the funding, says he’d get rid of Slottag if he could but that the city’s budget doesn’t work that way. Slottag’s salary is lumped in with the overall budget of the communication department, so the mayor can decide which employees to keep and which to fire so long as he doesn’t exceed the budget, Kunz says. “Unless a job position sits on a line item by itself, we don’t have the power,” Kunz says. “This is just a game. It’s a deal where some aldermen feel that they can keep embarrassing the mayor.”
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