A Springfield alderwoman's question about a Labor Day boat parade on Lake Springfield in support of President Donald Trump has -- perhaps inadvertently -- turned up the political heat as the November election nears.
The event was one among many boat parades held across the country over the holiday weekend to show support for Trump's reelection. Several participating vessels were decked with pro-Trump flags and other paraphernalia as they paraded around the lake.
Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso asked City Water, Light and Power officials and city attorney Jim Zerkle at Tuesday's committee of the whole meeting if a permit was necessary for the event and if one had been obtained.
DiCenso said she was enjoying a day at the lake with her son and niece when she noticed the parade of boats "hooting and hollering and tooting their horns and having a jolly old time on Lake Springfield," which is city-owned property. DiCenso said she fielded several calls complaining about the parade.
Brown told council members that a permit had not been requested and Zerkle, though acknowledging that a 'boat parade' was not something the city typically deals with, said it was likely allowed under the First Amendment.
"Generally speaking, the courts are going to protect freedom of speech," Zerkle said. "So, absent a public safety concern -- boats too close, driving too fast, unsafe activities by way of jumping out of the boats into the water, things of that nature -- there's going to be a preference to support the First Amendment."
The question was asked and answered and the discussion was seemingly over within five minutes. But, it turns out it was only the beginning.
On Thurdsay, DiCenso became the target of fierce criticism from Sangamon County Republican Party chairwoman Rosemarie Long, who was responding to information on a flyer that's been making the rounds on social media.
The flyer claimed that DiCenso, following Tuesday's meeting, had described the boat parade as "horrid and unacceptable" and that she had plans to propose an ordinance that would prevent the displaying of political signs and flags on lake property.
The flyer has been distributed to various lake clubs and to lake lease owners. Long, speaking at the party's committee call, said she was "getting goosebumps because I'm so mad" about the claims.
"I cannot tell you how upsetting this is to me," Long said. "What happened to freedom in this country, in this town, in this county when they just think about not letting you place your American flag in your yard?"
But, DiCenso flatly denied the claims made in the flyer, saying they contained "completely made up statements." She also said she has never proposed preventing political signs or flags from being displayed on lake property and has no plans to introduce such a plan.
Several aldermen reached Friday, including Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer, said DiCenso has never mentioned such a proposal to them. Hanauer said that he doesn't "think everything's accurate that was in the flyer."
Long declined to disclose who sent her the information or identify the "sources" cited in the flyer.
"I just just feel everyone is jumping at any chance to do away with our American way of life," Long said. "And just even because a group was out having a good time on the lake, now, all of a sudden, 'Oh, we got to get a permit, we've got to make them do this, we've got to make everyone do this.' I just think every little thing the American people try to do anymore is trying to be taken away from them."
DiCenso said the controversy is an example of the Sangamon County GOP "just looking for something, for anything" to drum up during an election year.
"My question wasn't out of line," DiCenso said. "I never mentioned any candidates' name. I just said there was a boat parade. I'm asking what the regulations are. If an alderman can't ask that question at city council without the other side launching a full-blown smear campaign along with graphics and a pamphlet, then something's really wrong in the city."
Though the Springfield City Council is technically a non-partisan body, council members typically identify with and are supported by one of the two major political parties.
DiCenso and Alds. Shawn Gregory, Doris Turner, Erin Conley and Jim Donelan identify as Democrats while Alds. Chuck Redpath, John Fugenzi, Andrew Proctor and Ralph Hanauer are Republicans. Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, who previously lost a Democratic primary for Congress, identifies as an independent.
The council typically keeps the focus on issues facing the city. But, in a country deeply divided along partisan lines and with less than two months before a heated presidential election, national politics have inevitably seeped down.
Hanauer briefly challenged DiCenso on her questioning of the parade Tuesday, calling it free speech. But even then, there was levity at the end of the conversation, with DiCenso jokingly telling Hanauer "and now we know who you're voting for," implying his support for Trump.
Hanauer replied, "I don't think there was any doubt on that."
Still, reached Friday, Hanauer said he thinks DiCenso would not have brought up the topic if it were a boat parade for a candidate she supports.
"What rubbed me wrong on this was if it would have been a boat parade with a Democrat candidate on, Kristen would have never said anything about it," Hanauer said.
But, DiCenso said that is not the case.
"I'm all for free speech," DiCenso said, noting that an American flag hangs on her porch and four political signs are in her front yard. "But we're talking about municipally-owned property."
"We have rules and regulations on our property, we have speed limits on the lake, you have to wear a life jacket, we have lake police," DiCenso said. "Again, if you have events or activities that the lake you have to have a permit. I was just asking a question."
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