By Glenn Reedus, Gary Crusader
One would think that a woman who was a prosecutor, attorney general, judge and two-term mayor would be one of the most recognizable figures in Gary. However, when she throws on a blond slightly tattered wig Karen Freeman-Wilson looks anything but mayoral.
Freeman-Wilson, a Gary native and Indiana’s first African-American female mayor, donned the disguise, and fooled four Gary employees. The ruse was pulled off for the mayor’s role in CBS television series “The Undercover Boss.” Normally, the show’s producers recruit corporate executives to wear a disguise and work undercover among their employees. The premise is bosses can get an unfettered look at how efficiently employees perform their jobs. Like Freeman-Wilson who did the employee’s work in several departments.
Whether it was operating the beach cleaning apparatus at Miller Beach, driving a Gary Police Department squad car, trying to easily fit into firefighters’ gear; the mayor was successfully challenged. Working as an operator at the city’s sanitary district plant proved Freeman-Wilson was indeed cut out to sit behind a desk, not sanitize waste.
She explained it was approximately a year ago when the show’s producers contacted her about being a contestant, but it was about 90 days before she agreed to do it. That made her the 3rd mayor on the show, but the first female mayor to appear on Undercover Boss. “I was ambivalent at first but eventually I saw it as an opportunity to highlight some of the good we are doing in the city.” Around May of this year they (representatives of the show) came back and interviewed city employees for possible appearances on the show.”
Freeman-Wilson said employees were led to believe they were being interviewed for a reality show titled “Tough Enough.” The premise raised the suspicion of Gary Police Officer Shanesha Emmons, an 8.5-year veteran of the department. Emmons recalled she initially became suspicious at how shabbily undercover contestant Miss Sheila was dressed. “I really became suspicious when the people from the show said the contestant could win $100,000. I thought you want me to train somebody for free and they could win $100,000?”
Emmons and the three other employees featured all shared with Freeman-Wilson the positives about working for the city, as well as the challenges–especially the outdated equipment. She said driving a squad car in a staged traffic stop was the toughest challenge she undertook. “There was so much to do – steering, the siren and operating the (flashing) lights simultaneously. That was a lot.”
Because the city is in the public sector, it couldn’t reward featured employees cash prizes like “Undercover” employees usually receive. The mayor is in the process of asking local businesses and benefactors to chip in to a fund that will ultimately contain $40,000 to underwrite the prizes she promised a couple of employees.
The mayor offered that the trickery gave her an opportunity to see firsthand how hard-working and dedicated employees actually are. One man had not received a raise in more than a decade, and still showed up for work every day. She also made arrangements to bring 50 new police vehicles into the fleet.
“I had to find out what I could do to make their jobs easier,” said Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.