As village commissioners and Mayor Rory Hoskins close in on nine months in office, tensions over communication and transparency involving Commissioner Dan Novak have surfaced.
Novak, almost a year into his second term, appears to be isolated from Hoskins, fellow commissioners, Village Administrator Tim Gillian and department heads.
A volume of questions regularly emailed to elected officials and village staff by Novak has led to frustration over added work, doubts about his motivations and upset over a lack of personal interaction in lieu of emails.
Novak, in an interview with the Review, said his only goal is transparency, a word he uses often, to the public. And, he said, as a busy dad with a full-time job he finds emails are the most efficient way to communicate.
Commissioner Joe Byrnes, like Novak in his second term, said in an interview, that when he has a question about a village council agenda item, he goes directly to the department head in charge of the issue.
“Tim and the department heads are very approachable,” said Byrnes. “All the bills are available to the commissioners. It’s a simple process.” Byrnes said for reasons he can’t identify, Novak “has said more in the last two meetings than in his entire previous four years on the council.”
“I don’t understand what his purpose is,” said Byrnes. “Tim’s door is always open. And Tish [Finance Director Letitia Olmsted] is there late all the time. There’s opportunity for me and for any of the commissioners to stop by and ask the questions they need to ask without stopping people from doing their jobs. You can easily get answers outside of meeting time.”
At recent village council meetings, Novak has been asking questions, questions that Hoskins has instructed him to find answers to outside of council meetings. But Novak said that has been a challenge, stating that emails to village department heads and Administrator Tim Gillian have gone largely unanswered.
At the Jan. 27 village council meeting, Novak referenced a Jan. 14 email to staff, thanking Fire Chief Bob McDermott for his response to the email, but commented on a lack of response from others.
“I sincerely hope that the lack of additional responses is not at the direction from this dais or any additional staff members regarding responses to an elected village official,” said Novak in his commissioner’s report at the end of the Jan. 27 meeting.
Tensions between Novak and Hoskins are escalating. In a recent email Novak wrote, “Please advise on how you want me to proceed. I would like to avoid the obvious and public animosity you directed toward me at our last meeting.”
The public animosity referenced by Novak is most likely the exchange between him and Hoskins when he began asking questions during the finance report at the Jan. 13 meeting, requesting a breakdown of public property costs and asking about an increase in year-to-date costs in the Department of Health and Safety over last year’s numbers.
“These are reasonable questions,” said Hoskins during the meeting, but added the best time to get the answers wasn’t during meeting time.
“You’re the commissioner for accounts and finance,” said Hoskins. “The finance director works with you closely. May I suggest that for purposes of consuming our time, you take some of these questions and possibly just meet with your director of finance and go through these. If there’s not enough detail in the existing finance report, maybe you can arrive at a finance report that captures the level of detail that meets your needs as commissioner for accounts and finance.”
“My goal is ultimate transparency for those at home,” said Novak. “They don’t get this information. This is a platform that we televise twice a month. I’d like to share the information and ask the questions, and I will continue to ask the questions at this level that I feel fit.”
He then asked if he could continue with his questions, but Hoskins said, “We’re actually going to go on.”
Novak told the Review that transparency is at the heart of his quest for information from village staff. Discussing the lack of response to his emails, he said, “If people don’t answer, I can only assume the lack of response means there’s information they don’t want me to know.”
“It’s hard to get information out of Tim [Gillian]’s office,” said Novak. “My questions in emails have fallen on deaf ears.” And when he does get information, he said he asks, “Am I just getting the information they want me to know?”
But Hoskins and Gillian said they are frustrated with the minutia and quantity of the questions Novak emails, copying all department heads as well as the village clerk and Hoskins’ assistant, Tanzla David-Rodriguez. The questions come without context, without an indication of why they’re being asked, and are often in regard to contracts or information to which the commissioners have access, according to both Hoskins and Gillian.
Gillian, in an interview, said that at first the department heads worked hard to answer all Novak’s questions, which began in earnest in September, though he was a commissioner for the previous term as well.
“It got to be too much,” said Gillian, who cited an example of how he and a department head worked for hours to get information to Novak last minute, because Novak said he needed it for a Monday night meeting. But Novak was out of town and didn’t even show up to the meeting.
“The entire staff asked to set up a meeting with the mayor,” said Gillian.
Hoskins said he held that meeting two weeks ago with department heads to discuss the email situation, and staff reported feeling targeted and, in some cases, threatened by the demands for information from Novak.
“I told staff that commissioners can inspect village books and records, but they cannot create more work for you,” said Hoskins. “I said, ‘If you feel you’re being made to do additional work, don’t feel like you are required to respond.'”
Although Commissioners Jessica Voogd, Ryan Nero and Byrnes regularly come to village hall to interact with staff, Hoskins reported that Novak almost never comes by.
“He’s not engaging on a personal level with staff,” said Hoskins, who added that face-to-face or phone conversations allow a back-and-forth, a greater understanding of why a question is being asked and better communication between the parties involved.
“It’s impossible to relay tone or build a relationship through email,” said Hoskins. “I prefer to look people in the eye and exchange information candidly.”
Byrnes said it’s not clear why Novak is insisting on questions being asked via email. “It seems like Dan wants a paper trail,” said Byrnes. “When I ask questions, I want answers.”
Voogd also said she finds Gillian and the department heads to be “very open and accommodating.” She said when she has questions about agenda items, she does as much research as she can, then approaches Gillian or the appropriate staff member with outstanding questions. “I’ll call Tim or Steve Glinke or John Doss, and they give me the information I need.” Nero did not respond with comments to the Review.
In an interview, Novak said there is always a purpose to his questions, and he copies everyone on the emails to get as much insight as possible.
“At the end of the day, I’m proud to have been elected, and I’m proud to serve. I take my position seriously. When I ask questions, it’s as a resident and a representative of the community,” said Novak, who stated he’s the only “truly independent” commissioner, adding that he feels it’s four against one at the village council meetings.
And, he said, email is his style of communication. “I’m a busy dad, and I work full time. My days are packed. The best form of communication for me is emails.”
“I will continue to ask questions. I’m not going away. This is year one. There are still three more years. I will continue to be persistent and diligent,” he said.
“I’m not drinking the Kool Aid. I don’t need the Kumbaya. I’m not here to get along with people. I’m here to serve the village of Forest Park.”