Thursday, August 20, 2009

Death threats, cell phone numbers and politics as usual in Toledo

As a former county commissioner and someone who's had death threats in that position, I believe I can speak with some authority about the latest circumstances surrounding Ben Konop.

First, let's address the issue of his personal cell phone number being given out on WSPD's afternoon show by Brian Wilson.

Many are saying they wouldn't want their own cell phone numbers given out over the air, but those who make such a statement are not public officials. Such 'privacy' issues are different when an individual is in the public eye. Is Konop's cell phone listed publicly on his website for his campaign, his blog or in any other communication, like a press release? If so, then it's publicly available and all WSPD did was share it with a wider audience. If not, then I would have to question the use of that number rather than his office number when urging people to call him.

When I was on air and Konop refused to respond to my invitation to appear on Eye On Toledo, I encouraged people to call or email his office to ask him to 1) provide a response to my invitation and 2) encourage him to accept. I also encouraged them to ask him about this when he appeared in person at events or forums. There's nothing wrong in encouraging citizens to engage their elected officials.

But before anyone can take exception to the broadcast of Konop's personal cell phone number, you need to know whether or not it's already a public number. Only then can you make an informed decision about whether it was the right thing or the wrong thing to do.

Threats:

When I was first elected to the commissioner seat, but before I was sworn in, I had a death threat on my home telephone - at an unlisted number I used only for family and friends - and they left the message on the recorder. Rather stupid of them, but they did so. The details in the threat made it clear that they were familiar with my house, the people in my house and our daily routines. I probably would have just dismissed the threat if it hadn't been for the additional details which made me believe they'd observed the goings-on in our home for a while.

My reaction was to call the Toledo Police since I live in Toledo and also because I was the Clerk of Toledo Municipal Court and worked very closely with that agency. Because I did not want to encourage the caller, in any way, by publicity about the incident, I called the chief's office to ask about the best way to handle the call and my family's concerns. They sent a detective over who listened to the recording, make out a report and suggested some additional patrols in the neighborhood. It was suggested that officers in patrol cars would be asked to park at the end of our street to do their paperwork or during their breaks, to provide an additional presence that would, hopefully, discourage any unwanted activity.

We also took some additional measures and installed a security system in the house, which we'd been planning to do anyway, and went over the advice given out at most block watch meetings about being aware of suspicious activity.

Shortly after being sworn in, there was a break-in at the house. Fortunately, the alarm system worked - quite well, in fact - and while a rear basement window was broken and the perpetrator did get a foot on the table, the alarms went off and nothing was taken.

After getting the phone call from the alarm company, I arrived at home to find both TPD and Sheriff Deputies (LCSO) on the scene. While I was not surprised to find my local law enforcement personnel, I was surprised to find the Sheriff's Department had responded. As it was explained to me by then-Chief Deputy Ken Perry, the LCSO believed it was their responsibility to protect all county-elected officials, in addition to county residents, and they take threats against such individuals - regardless of the politics - very seriously. (Perry was my opponent in the 1995 election for Clerk of Court.)

Fortunately, following the investigation of the break-in (which was never solved), the police concluded that the break-in and threats were separate incidents and not related. But I know that when my family took our annual vacation a few weeks later, Chief Deputy Perry made several stops at my house just to check things out and make sure everything was okay. Though I told him that wasn't really necessary, he said he wanted to do it and, upon my insistence, assured me he wouldn't stop during his normal work schedule and take time away from his obligations to the Sheriff to do so.

So I know, first hand, the attention the LCSO places on the security of the individuals they assume responsibility for. But with the serious and detailed nature of the threat I received, I did not ask for a body guard so I wonder about the threats Konop has gotten and why this has become a rather public issue when prudence would dictate keeping a lower profile on the security.

I would like to see the emails Konop has received to judge for myself, though I know they'd probably be designated as non-public documents relating to an on-going investigation.

As an elected official, you get all kinds of communications from all sorts of people who use varying degrees of words when they don't like decisions you've made.

One of the easiest ways to handle such communications is to diffuse the issue yourself through conversation or response. Konop, unfortunately, has a reputation for not being able to do this well, if he bothers to respond at all. Is it likely that his reaction to such communications has escalated the situation? It's a good question to ask and the answer would probably only be revealed with an investigation of both sides of the communications.

When you've done your best to de-escalate the situation and it isn't working, it is logical to share the information with law enforcement. But does this warrant a body guard - a LCSO deputy to escort you various places, including within a well-protected government building? I don't know because I haven't seen the emails.

But I do know that the Commissioners used to have a Sheriff Deputy on duty for all the commissioner meetings. Shortly after Tina Skeldon Wozniak and I were sworn in, we examined the need for this person and Tina, Harry Barlos and I decided that we had enough protection in the building from the State Highway Patrol officers and really didn't need a deputy at our meetings. Besides, we figured we really had nothing to fear from our own constituents, especially in Government Center. So we asked the Sheriff to use that deputy more productively within his organization. And we never had a problem. In fact, I don't believe subsequent boards of commissioners have had any such issue that would warrant changing that decision.

So where does that leave us, as taxpayers footing the bill for all of this? Wondering, speculating and opining - which is all we can do under the circumstances. We do not have enough details to make an informed decision and it is likely that we never will.

So we are left with questions:

Is it likely that Konop is taking advantage of the situation in order to generate sympathy for his position and get in a few digs at a radio station he hates? Yes.

Is it likely that people are more angry at Konop's actions with the trampling of the U.S. Flag than what he expected? Yes.

Is it possible that he is at risk of physical harm? Yes.

Is it possible that the threats against him are real, credible and worthy of the concern of law enforcement? Yes.

Is it possible that he requested a body guard rather than have the LCSO insist upon one? Yes.

Is it possible this is being blown out of proportion? Yes

Will we ever really know the answers to these questions? No.

So some comments:

To the people who read my comments and other news stories or blogs about this: take a step back and ask yourself if you really have enough information to establish an informed opinion about the incident ... or if your preconceived ideas about Commissioner and mayoral candidate Konop are influencing your perspective.

To the media who cover the 'what' without asking for the supporting evidence to justify the 'who' and 'why': get the whole story and share it without bias.

To Konop: if you really believe you are in danger, protect yourself. Only you know the truth about that. But if you're taking advantage of the situation for political purposes, know that such a strategy can and will backfire when facts are revealed.

Also to Konop: while you have the 'right' to not speak to any media outlet, news department, reporter, TV news show or radio talk show host, your constituents also have the 'right' to hold you accountable for such decisions. Just because you can and should make such decisions, you are not immune from the consequences of those decisions and you should expect the public to respond as they see fit - which includes calling you out on the issue.

To the law enforcement officials involved in this: thank you! Your willingness to serve and protect is always, always valued and appreciated.

1 comment:

Tim Higgins said...

Maggie,

I am firmly in the belief that young Ben has hired the former Saturday Night Live writers for John Lovitz, and is using them for his

"I have had six, no ten, no it was twelve threats. Yeah, that was it. It was twelve threats against my life ..." campaign for Mayor.

On the other hand, I have no objection to have having protection detail. As a registered voter in Lucas County, I believe it is the duty of the Sheriff's Department to protect voters against the non-stop nonsense and ludicrous behavior committed (pun intended) by this candidate.

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