Bad look, no violation in board member tiff

An angry exchange between Hinsdale High School District 86 Board members Erik Held and Jeff Waters after a meeting was a “bad moment” and should underscore the importance of public officials behaving respectfully toward one another, according to an investigation into the Oct. 28 incident.

In presenting the report of the investigation at the district’s Jan. 13 school board meeting, attorney Dana Crumley of the law firm Franczek P.C. said the intent was to “give everyone a bit of grace.”

She said board policy had not been violated and eschewed placing blame in favor of using the episode to encourage a more constructive approach to handling opposing views.

“I think the board will be best served if you take this as one isolated incident and move on from it,” Crumley told board members.

Held had filed a formal complaint against Waters alleging that Waters slapped his back in a threatening manner in the Hinsdale South parking lot and used profanity to express his displeasure with comments Held made during the meeting.

Detailing her findings, Crumley determined that Waters’ right hand made unwelcome contact with Held but “was not a hit or a strike and did not constitute an assault,” and that Waters did utter a profanity. The two continued to talk as they walked toward their cars until a member of the Hinsdale South security staff, observing the commotion, advised them to end their conversation.

“The verbal exchange between Mr. Held and Mr. Waters ceased momentarily,” Crumley reported. “Before leaving the parking lot, Mr. Held stopped his car behind Mr. Waters’ car and told Mr. Waters not to put hands on him again.”

Held was advised to continue exiting the lot, she said, after which Waters told the security staffer he would appreciate it if he did not mention the incident to anyone.

“While Mr. Waters’ comment and his touching of Mr. Held initiated the dispute, the conflict persisted due to Mr. Held’s actions, despite opportunities to disengage,” Crumley stated in her report.

After talking with both as part of her investigation, she concluded that little would be gained by handing down punishment.

“I don’t think ... that it was a reflection of who they are overall as people,” Crumley told board members at last week’s meeting. “Both parties acknowledge that they played a role in the conflict. And I think both parties acknowledge — and this is very important — that this incident is not representative of how they want to interact with each other moving forward.”

Instead, she recommended that the board accept her finding that there was no violation of board policy but also underscore the expectation that board members exhibit appropriate behavior, including refraining from using profanity or threatening language at meetings, on district property or at any district-related event.

“The findings reiterate that you do all affirm to hold up your policies and to live by those policies while you’re serving your board duties,” Crumley said.

She noted that less contentious meetings also would contribute to a healthier climate. Disagreements are natural in a deliberative process, Crumley said, but an open dialogue can quickly become a heated debate when board members simply repeat the same talking points instead of seeking consensus.

“That means limiting your conversation sometimes,” she said, “You’re probably not going to change people’s minds.”

She said Held and Waters indicated their understanding that the board and the wider community would be better served by “achieving a process for (working through) future disagreements.”

The board unanimously accepted Crumley’s determination. Both Waters and Held thanked Crumley for her work, and pantomimed an air hug as a gesture of reconciliation.

The district has yet to receive a final invoice from Franczek for the investigation, a spokesman said.

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean