A Northfield trustee’s suggestion that the Village not do business with a company because of the politically motivated actions of its owner sparked in intense discussion among the trustees.
Trustee Barnaby Dinges shared his concerns during the Northfield Village Board’s committee of the whole meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 21, when he suggested the Village rethink its purchases from Uline, a Wisconsin-based supply company co-founded by billionaire Richard Uihlein.
Dinges said the Uline company “is essentially the poster child for election denial campaigns across the country.”
He called them “dark money campaigns that question our elections, the machines, the poll workers, the village clerks, the vote, and question the legitimacy of the electoral process, which I take very seriously.”
Uihlein and his political action committee, Restoration PAC, have been linked to election-denying candidates and campaigns across the country.
Dinges said he researched the Village’s purchasing with Uline and found that in 2021, the village spent $2,200 over three months on Uline products, while during eight months in 2022, that amount was more than $5,000.
While he said it was “not huge amounts of money,” it still concerned him that the Village spent it.
Dinges further said that he doesn’t believe the Village should be doing business with a company whose leadership has contributed money toward those campaigns.
While he didn’t call for any policy changes, Dinges asked that the Village “properly enforce” its purchasing policy, “which directs the Village to ‘ensure the best interests of the public and village are served.’”
“I question how we as a village (are) buying these products from this company that is then turning around and spending them to say elections in our country are corrupt and can’t be trusted,” Dinges said, adding that he would vote against any village purchase from Uline.
“I personally think our procurement policy is just fine if good judgment is applied to it,” he said. “So, I’m questioning our judgment.”
Village President Greg Lungmus described the matter as a “free speech” issue and called it a “complex subject.”
“I struggle with it just because, I think, at the end of the day, we’re discriminating against, we’re showing prejudice, against a company,” he said.
While Lungmus said people have the right as individuals to choose not to support a company because of their views or the views of their owner, municipalities can’t do the same.
“The only way to do it is through true policy,” he said, which would then open up discussions as to what other issues the company may be for or against. “… Moving forward, we’d end up with lists of purveyors that individual trustees are deciding, ‘This is my belief system. This is my belief system. I know what this company does.'”
Trustee Todd Fowler said if the Village pursues this as a policy, it would likely open them up to lawsuits from Uihlein himself.
“He’s a billionaire,” Fowler said. “It’s going to get us tied up in a massive lawsuit. And I don’t want to pay for it. I don’t think any of the citizens want to pay for it, because we’re going to have to defend ourselves.”
He went on to say that the Village staff already works hard to secure companies to purchase from, and that if someone objects to companies for any reason, it starts that process over again.
“And I don’t want to have to go through every vendor with Stacy (Sigman, village manager) and pick and say, ‘Hmm. Let’s find our their belief system,’” Fowler said. “As a trustee, I can’t do that. I don’t believe it. That’s not our role.”
Additionally, Fowler said if any potential policy singles out Uihlein and his company, it could open up questioning as to whether the Village has any other “tests” to determine which companies they work with or not.
“That’s a recipe for disaster,” Fowler said.
Trustee Charles Orth also was wary of creating policy around specific companies, especially if they were the only company that offered the product they needed.
“I see both sides of it,” Orth said, “but, again, we don’t want to get ourselves in a lawsuit situation.”
Reading from a prepared statement, Trustee Tracey Mendrek said, “I do not agree with this vendor who backs candidates and issues that stray and are conflicting with my personal views. But we are not elected to promote our personal views. We are elected to provide the best and most efficient services to the taxpayers of Northfield.”
She also agreed with Lungmus, stating the discussion may have been about a vendor, but it’s possible someone else could raise objection to another company the Village works with because they disagree with their stance on social issues.
“There are no shortages of issues in America today,” Mendrek read. “We all feel strongly about all of them, but it is an extremely slippery slope when you quickly eliminate scores of companies from doing business with the Village, and in doing so, raising the cost of services and supplies which affect the Village’s bottom line.”
While most trustees disagreed with Dinges’ suggestion, Trustee Matt Galin did acknowledge that maybe the trustees should consider doing something.
He brought up a hypothetical scenario where if a vendor was found to be a neo-Nazi, the Village would never do business with them.
“So, maybe this is a more subtle issue, but I think we need to have the capability of dealing with it,” Galin said. “If Barnaby’s bringing it up, then it’s something that I think we need to deal with.”
And during public comment, resident Carol Ritchell presented a petition to the board, which Dinges noted was signed by more than 20 people, asking for the Village to not conduct business with any organization that attempts to underline U.S. elections.
“There are people who care about this, guys,” Ritchell said.
Lungmus said, while he appreciated Dinges’ concern and that he brought them to the board for discussions, he does not support directing staff to further research the issue.
“I just think it’s very dangerous to try and implement it on a municipal level,” he said. “You need to have a policy, and this policy gets us on a very slippery slope.”
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.