PEORIA, Illinois — Mayor Jim Ardis sat in his chair at the head of the Peoria City Council’s horseshoe Tuesday night, maintaining silent defiance as they voted to pay a short-order cook $125,000 after he sued his hometown for having the police raid his home over a joke Twitter account.
No discussion on Jon Daniel’s @peoriamayor. Just a vote and a check.
My friend Daniel’s saga began last February when, as a lark and with little to no forethought, he created @peoriamayor and began tweeting such things as “I’m trill as fuck,” and “Im thinkin its a tequila and stripper night.” Along with other references to booze, drugs, and sex, Daniel’s account was apparently enough to offend the family-oriented Midwestern sensibilities of Ardis.
“It’s not like I was auditioning for SNL or anything,” Daniel told me. “The truth of it is, I never went into it thinking a million people are gonna see this. I don’t even got fame out of this. The only thing that happened is that my name got slandered too in the whole mess.”
It could have ended there, with a politician brushing off an account with 50 followers and only a few dozen tweets, but Ardis pressed onward. Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that Ardis, and Peoria’s interim corporate counsel, two city managers, and a City Council person or two all offered their suggestions on how to handle the situation. An attorney suggested the city sue Twitter to get the account shut down. None of those ideas included growing thicker skin.
Twitter eventually suspended Daniel’s account thanks to complaints lobbied by city officials, but not before Ardis and his allies leveraged their power to sic the police on @peoriamayor.
As detectives worked to find a workable statute with which to drop a charge on Daniel, they also filled out the first of three search warrant applications for the home he shared with four other people. From there, three county judges signed off on all three warrants. The legal documents allowed police to obtain the Internet Protocol address linked to the tweets, eventually Daniel’s phone number and, finally, permission to raid his home and seize electronics as they investigated the crime of impersonating a public official.
In addition to confiscating a slew of electronics and a few ounces of weed in his roommate’s closet, they showed up at the restaurant where Daniel, 30 and a father of two, works. Another roommate experienced a similar fate when police dragged him out of the grocery store where he worked and put him in handcuffs for a ride downtown.
It went on from there. For several hours, Daniel, his roommate, and the girlfriend of the man picked up for marijuana charges were interrogated by police regarding @peoriamayor. The roommate taken from work who had absolutely nothing to do with the account told me he might have appreciated the absurdist comedy playing out as police peppered him with questions about Daniel’s mayoral caricature if it weren’t for the very real fear he felt in an interview room at the police department.
“They’re going to haul me away over this shit!” Daniel told me the day after the raid.
We drank heavily and began making behind-the-scenes moves of our own—the first, a public relations push that resulted in a few stories that prompted the avalanche of response from some of the millions of people online who were as shocked as we were that a private residence could be raided over a non-threatening Twitter account.
The story went viral and dozens and maybe as many as a hundred Twitter accounts lambasting Ardis popped up in the coming weeks, garnering tens of thousands of followers and getting astronomically more attention than Daniel’s account ever had.
But the backlash didn’t make Mayor Ardis back down, only double down. At a press conference announcing he would fight Daniel in court over the matter, Ardis read aloud some of the tweets Daniel had posted months earlier. “Bloodshot eyes,” the “smell of pussy on my breath,” and tales of coke-fueled partying poured from the mayor’s mouth. His stated intent was to shock the public, to show Peorians just how vile Daniel had been.
It was fucking hilarious.
With the involvement of the ACLU the situation took on a much more serious tone, and the city lawyered up, eventually racking up $100,000 in attorney’s fees, according to Peoria Public Radio. When the city announced last week it would settle with Daniel and the ACLU, the lawyer representing Peoria insisted he could have won the case, but at an estimated cost of $500,000.
So, on Tuesday night, the City Council gathered to approve a $125,000 settlement with Daniel, who will get to keep whatever remains after paying his own lawyers.
The real cost is much higher than the $225,000 in combined fees and settlement money. Consider the chain of events that led to Tuesday’s payout:
• Dozens of emails and hours of distracted time on the part of at least five city employees over the course of several days.
• At least two detectives and high-ranking officials within the police department, including the now-resigned police chief, working untold hours to find an applicable statute for Daniel’s crime, write the search warrant applications, execute them, obtain evidence and examine it, then submit charges to the state’s attorney.
• Then there were the three judges who reviewed and approved those warrants, as well as the employees of the state’s attorney’s office who made the final decision not to charge Daniel because, as most casual legal observers can tell you, satire is not a crime.
Beyond the monetary price heaped onto the city’s taxpayers, Ardis’s insistence that Daniel broke the law when he created a Twitter account that turned the mayor into a foul-mouthed, drug-addled, and hooker-loving buffoon, there is the cost to Peoria’s reputation, which now sits somewhere between laughingstock and a prairie police-state.
There were, of course, other things for the City Council to address on Tuesday night. Firefighter pensions; union city employees, including the police station receptionist, keeping pressure on their elected officials against right-to-work; whether or not to pay for cleanup of vacant lots on the city’s crime-plagued South End; demolition of arson-prone abandoned buildings in that same area of town; a report from the police chief on crime during the summer shooting months.
With 13 murders so far this year among a population of 115,000, Peoria has a per capita murder rate of 11.3, inching closer to Chicago’s 13.05.
Even for those not familiar with Peoria politics or its crime problems, it’s easy to imagine a more appropriate use of $225,000. When the time came to discuss the settlement none on the City Council chose to speak up. Just one voted against the measure.
Following the vote on Daniel’s payday, the discussion turned to job creation in the South End, also known by its ZIP Code of 61605. With a population of roughly 16,000 people—almost 10,000 of whom are black—the 61605 has an unemployment rate of 22 percent. The city’s two black council members are pushing for block grant dollars to go toward workplace training programs in the 61605. Eric Turner, a black Vietnam veteran who lives in the area, was the most forceful in his comments.
“I’ve sat here for years and I’ve seen money taken away from the 61605,” he told his fellow council members not long after they voted to pay off Daniel in defense of the mayor’s ego. “And ladies and gentlemen, we can put as many police on the street as we want to, but if we don’t get some kind of job training for these people, nothing’s going to get any better.”
The city has about $230,000 in federal block grants for 2015, an amount has that has gone down every year, and Turner wants to see them go toward workforce development programs.
“So we’re going to work miracles with $230,000 then?” Ardis asked.