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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 02:09 am

Mayor Houston withdraws a controversial nomination

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Springfield Mayor Mike Houston says he didn’t know that the city paid to settle lawsuits alleging sexual harassment by Kirk Robinson.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

A short-lived nomination to a once-forgotten city commission has prompted concerns about Springfield Mayor Mike Houston’s vetting process for city posts.

Houston on Saturday withdrew his nomination of former police chief Kirk Robinson to serve on the city’s Community Police Review Commission.

Robinson resigned as chief of the department in 1993 after allegations of sexual harassment of department employees came to light. Two employees sued, and the city paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to court files and the State Journal-Register, which in a 1999 story set the tab for one employee alone at more than $500,000.

Robinson could not be reached for comment. The nomination became public on Oct. 4, but Houston changed his mind four days later after aldermen became aware of Robinson’s past. Houston said that he knew that Robinson had been removed as police chief, but that he did not know about payouts to employees who sued the city.

“I was aware of the fact that he had problems,” Houston said. “He had indicated an interest in being on the board.”

Houston said he nominated Robinson because of his background and because he could represent the African American community. However, Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen said that anyone who has been a sworn officer should not be allowed on the commission, which was formed five years ago as an appeals board when citizens aren’t satisfied with internal affairs investigations into complaints against officers.

“The name of the board says what I think we want on it: citizens reviewing the police department,” Theilen said. “I think that anyone who’s been a sworn officer kind of defeats the purpose.”

However, Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson said that she believes former cops shouldn’t be disqualified and that their experience could prove helpful on the commission. But Simpson said she isn’t sure why the mayor picked Robinson, given his history. She added that she is concerned that Houston isn’t picking fresh faces for city posts.

“My concern with the mayor’s nominations is they all seem to be recycled people, people he’s known,” Simpson said. “I don’t think that shows any real effort to look for people who have new, fresh ideas. That’s not to say I have any problems with any of his nominations. They just tend to be recycled people.”

The withdrawal of Robinson’s nomination marks the second time since Houston was elected last April that a mayoral nomination to a city post disintegrated after controversy surrounding nominees came to light. Tom Kelty, the mayor’s first choice for corporation counsel, withdrew his name from consideration in May after the media reported about his record in private practice, including a lawsuit against him that resulted in a $4.75 million payout.

“I’m almost to the point where I would prefer him not making any decisions, because the ones he’s making aren’t working out too well for us,” said Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards.

Theilen said that the council needs to be more attentive to mayoral appointments in light of the Kelty and Robinson nominations. Ward 6 Ald. Cory Jobe said that he was surprised and concerned by the Robinson nomination, and he has heard from constituents.

“It does concern me a little bit, in terms of what kind of vetting process he has with these types of appointments,” Jobe said.

The Robinson nomination was one of three for the commission that has languished in recent years, with appointments lapsing and no meetings held due to lack of cases. Sixteen other nominations are pending to fill four other city commissions, including the Municipal Band Commission, the Historic Sites Commission, the Community Relations Commission and the Homeless Advisory Commission.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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