Friday, February 8, 2019

Chickens on Trial

On July 25, 20126 Dave Giuliani covered the opening day of Village of Ransom vs. Randy Stillwell in LaSalle County civil court, otherwise known as “The Chicken Trial,” It opened with a surprising argument.  Attorney Cara Luckey, representing the village, offered this, as written by Giuliani.
In her opening statement, the village's attorney, Cara Luckey, said Stillwell had no evidence showing the village board intended to exempt Stillwell's chickens. Even if it did, she said, Stillwell's chickens in 1997 would no longer be alive.

It seemed odd to argue an exemption for which there was no record, no evidence that it ever existed, but it must have been considered compelling to the jury.  The exemption that never existed, Atty. Luckey claimed, was not granted to Randy Stillwell as a chicken owner, but was limited to the lifetimes of the chickens living in 1997 when the ordinance was adopted.  Using that logic, those birds, even if they were but downy yellow chicks in 1997, would have died by 2004 or 2005, given that the average span of a chicken’s life of a chicken’s life  was and still is 7-8 years.
“He would only be allowed to keep the chickens he had at the time the ordinance passed,” Ms. Luckey claimed.

That was the first point Randy Stillwell, acting as his own attorney, had to counter.  But counter it he did, albeit in a more roundabout way, in his opening statement.  He began slowly, appealing to the jury in this way.   
"I'm a simple man growing my own food, and I don't bother anyone.  If the village meant to keep out my chickens they would have been in court two decades ago.”

And to the opposing attorney’s theoretical chicken exemption argument he pointed out that his chickens today have the same bloodlines as those in 1997.  Having descended from the chickens alive at the time of the ordinance, they would be allowed under the verbal agreement, he contended , even if it did exempt only his chickens.

Village President Matt Hauser, on the witness stand under oath, responding to questions from Ransom’s attorney, testified that he had received complaints about Stillwell's chickens.
In cross-examination, Randy Stillwell asked whether the complaints were official or whether Hauser picked up the information by talking to others in a bar.

"I don't hang out at the bar., I consider input from all constituents," the mayor replied.
Dave Giuliani was too ethical a journalist to use an adverb following the mayor’s statement.  I can imagine any one of a number of words which I wished he had given us describing how the mayor replied.  Angrily?  Curtly?  Loudly?  Or maybe calmly.  It could well have been a flash point kind of moment, the exchange between the new mayor and veteran city councilman.  We’ll never know.

Hauser also described the process of trying to get Stillwell to remove the chickens, issuing a letter to the board member. He never mentioned any direct contact with Stillwell, who belongs to the village board over which Hauser presides.
Enter the judge.  Many of us in LaSalle County we were pleased to learn that Judge Daniel Bute, local kid from Streator still thought of as Danny, long employed as LaSalle County’s Public Defender, a good one, who represented his lowly clients well, pulling no punches in court, regularly challenging the status quo, was picked to preside over the chicken trial.

I imagine some in the community were surprised when he was promoted to the bench after years of being known as something of a raconteur around town.  Those surprised would have known little of the local bar’s respect for his knowledge and application of the law coupled with plain talk and common sense.
Judge Bute interrupted and went on the court record when Mayor Hauser reported no direct contact with Stillwell regarding the chickens in question.

"All this time you haven't had a conversation with Mr. Stillwell about these damn chickens?" Judge Daniel Bute asked.
In reply the mayor said he had not in hopes of creating no further division between himself and the village board.  I can see Danny, upon hearing that response, shaking his head.  Dave Giuliani reported no such head shaking reaction by the judge and again offering no adverb.  In the written record of the Ransom Chicken Wars created by local journalists, you had to be there to witness the judge’s reaction.  I think “incredulously”, as in “the judge shook his head incredulously” would have been perfect and possibly very accurate.  But it was not to be.

The prosecution called real and actual complainants who testified to being bothered by Randy’s crowing rooster alarmed that his chickens may be drawing coyotes into town.
 Randy Stillwell called to the stand Dale Johnson, the Village Clerk in 1997 when the ordinance was passed.  Mr. Johnson said he remembered Stillwell saying in a meeting that year he wanted his chickens grandfathered in and that no one objected.

Under cross examination Johnson acknowledged nothing in the meeting minutes indicated any discussion about grandfathering anyone's animals.  The trial was continued to the next day.
Court proceedings, being adversarial, create winners and losers.  After closing arguments the next day the three man, three woman jury deliberated for two hours before finding Randy Stillwell guilty of keeping chickens in violation of a city ordinance.  Judge Bute ordered the chickens removed.  Randy Stillwell lost.

During sentencing, the village's attorney, Cara Luckey, suggested fining Stillwell $3,000, which Randy considered excessive, given his fixed income.  Judge Bute apparently agreed, and decided he would assess no fines if Stillwell removed the chickens by August 31.  Randy thought that was fair. 
Judge Bute concluded the proceedings by praising the trial's participants.

"It was a very well-done trial," Bute said. "You did a good job, Randy."
Dave Giuliani could well have ended his coverage there, but he went on to speak with a couple jurors who called themselves the last holdouts during deliberations.

A woman from the small town of Leland said it seemed as if the village government had something against Stillwell.
"The chickens weren't a problem.   I like chickens. They are intelligent."

Another juror from Somonauk criticized the village's decision to submit photos of Stillwell's property to the jury. The village maintained during the trial Stillwell's property was in violation of village ordinances, saying there was debris in his front yard.
"That wasn't relevant.  The trial was about chickens.”

Yes it was about chickens.  But that verdict did not end the saga.  Judge Bute later threw out the jury’s verdict when it was discovered a juror drove to the Stillwell house during the trial, violating Judge Bute’s order against private investigation.  A second jury found Stillwell didn’t violate the ordinance and noted he had been allowed the keep the chickens for an extended amount of time after the ordinance was enacted. The village wound up spending more than $6,000 in an effort to force Stillwell to rid his property of chickens.  Randy Stillwell spent nothing, and gained a certain measure of fame in Ransom and the surrounding area.
Matt Hauser later remarked, while defending his record as mayor of Ransom in an article written by Brent Bader, yet another Times reporter involved in the Ransom Chicken coverage (still employed by the way) that despite retiring a large amount of debt, fixing streets, and redoing a well, all anyone talks about in connection with Ransom is chickens.  He learned something the hard way I believe about the power of local press applied to a good story. That lesson is best expressed by the mayor in his own words.

"You touch a feather on (Stillwell's) chickens, and he has newspapers coming after us.”
Actually, it was not newspapers coming after Ransom village government, it was public opinion.   The Times reporters were careful to let the facts do the talking, and when they did interest in the story of that small town grew, and opinions were formed.  Randy Stillwell and his chickens may have split a double header so to speak, lost one trial but won another, but the questions of whether Ransom should be the kind of town that prohibits its citizens from keeping chickens was decidedly settled in a local election. 

The conflict in Ransom subsided considerably when Randy Stillwell decided not to run for mayor the following April.  His reasoning was this.
"You have five people on the board who don't agree with me. I wouldn't be able to get anything done. If I stay on the board, at least I get a vote," he said. "No one else in town is interested in being on the board."

Mayor Hauser, to his credit, suggested putting a two questions advisory referendum on the ballot . One asking the citizenry if they favored allowing residents to keep hens in the city limits, the other asking whether rooster be allowed.  Nothing like voting to settle matters on any government level. 
Here’s the results.

                In support of allowing hens to be kept within Ransom city limits                             81

                Against allowing hens to be kept……………………………………..                            29

                In support of allowing roosters to be kept within Ransom city limits      59

                Against allowing roosters to be kept………………………………..                           51

Pretty decisive.  Although if I were a Ransom rooster, I wouldn’t crow about it too loudly.  They won by a slim majority.   Too much noise and they could suffer the fate of Randy Stillwell’s rooster when the story first broke.
I loved this story because it’s small town.  I grew up on a farm where chickens lived and roosters crowed.  I know how it feels living in a small town community where everyone knows everyone else and their brother.  Almost everything ends up being personal.  We all operate on that level if we’re honest.  You want to be an objective and data driven citizen when it comes to politics but it is hard if not impossible to keep emotion out of it.  That’s where local newspapers and radio stations come in.

They ascribe to the ethics of journalism.  Without objective reporting on local issues we’re doomed to rumor if not outright lies.  You can’t believe everything, sometimes anything, on the internet but you should be able to trust your local paper.  America outside its big cities will be screwed if they lose good professional news people who understand the communities they serve and report clearly and honestly about the people and places who live there.   

We may be screwed anyway if business dynamics keep driving traditional media in the direction it is headed.  I’m going to support them in any way I can.  I hope you consider doing the same.  

1 comment:

  1. We have kept our paper subscriptions to those two papers also. Sure, I can read them online but I can't just throw the online ads into the recycling bin, and those ads are so obtrusive.Thanks for another interesting look at life.