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Jeff Ward: How Aldermen Applied Political Subtlety to Win a Lower Geneva Tax Levy

Constant yelling and screaming won't get you anywhere.

Whether it’s the political process or the national debate, the ability to employ subtlety is rapidly becoming a lost art. These generally overzealous folks who firmly believe the one who screams the loudest wins wouldn’t know nuance if it bit 'em in the butt.

Please don’t confuse tact with guile. Though this point may be lost on most Illinois governors, the use of stealth to abridge the system and secure a result generally favorable to the bottom line is never acceptable. What we’re talking about here is the capacity to put the process and the outcome above the need to feed your ego.

Already anticipating the comments from my adoring public, I understand a plea for subtlety from me is a lot like Michelle Bachman asking other people to make sense. But the truth is, you won’t last long in this business unless you can muster some semblance of diplomacy when the situation frequently requires it. If, at the end of the day, no one’s willing to talk to you, then you may as well hang it up.

And a perfect example of the kind of subtlety we’re discussing occurred right under our noses when the Geneva City Council rolled back by a small, but philosophically significant amount.

I’m going to have to be circumspect myself here because, in covering this kind of aldermanic subtlety, I could well undermine any future Geneva attempt to strike a blow against the municipal mindset. (And my mother said I had no tact!) So with that caveat in mind, let’s continue.

Our story started with a little math exercise and a move by 3rd Ward Alderman Dean Kilburg who sought to keep the property tax levy static. But rather than engage in the kind of grandstanding to which we’ve become far too accustomed, he and another alderman worked behind the scenes to garner the necessary support.

It’s true that 1st Ward Alderman Sam Hill cast the sole vote against the proposed levy increase during the initial round, but the councilmen who restrained themselves from taking a stand during that preliminary step understood that sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war.

Had they come out against the new levy too early, they would’ve handed Mayor Kevin Burns and the opposition aldermen a perfect opportunity to turn one of those aldermen to the dark side.

Remember, after Chuck Brown introduced the amendment at the following City Council meeting, the final vote was a scant 5-4 in favor of the lower levy total. But with 5th Ward Alderman Ralph Dantino undergoing cancer treatment (Get well, Ralph!), Mayor Burns was allowed to cast the vote that tied it up and kept the higher levy alive for another week.

Please note that Kilburg wasn’t silly enough to jump out of his chair, pound his shoe on the table, declare himself “the defender of the Geneva taxpayer,” and still hope to pull off that vote. It was 1st Ward Alderman Chuck Brown who made the amendment move to lower the levy because Kilburg clearly understands the power of sharing the credit.

With 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Piper, who supported the increase, absent, and the fiscally conservative Dantino attending the Dec. 12 council meeting by phone, the lower levy was a foregone conclusion.

But the fact the outcome was assured didn’t stop 5th Ward Alderman Craig Maldra from taking yet another opportunity to chastise his aldermanic brethren. As he slightly shook his head from side-to-side, Maladra proceeded to talk down the choice his colleagues were about to make.

Of course, a more prudent politician, realizing he had nothing to gain by attempting to scale an illusory moral high ground on the backs of his associates, might’ve made his point off camera in the hope of prevailing at some future time.

Instead, it may have been Maladra’s dogged insistence on doling out lectures that played a role in 3rd Ward Alderman Ron Singer changing his vote to reduce the levy. Perhaps Maladra just doesn’t understand the concept of subtlety.

Taking a cue from the late great Walter Payton, who simply tossed the football to the referee after a touchdown, the seven alderman that made their point didn’t engage in an obscene victory dance in the middle of the council chambers. There were no gotchas, gloating or grandstanding and, in the end, the adjusted levy passed unanimously.

There’s something to be said for acting like you’ve been there.

When subtlety does fail, and only within the bounds of reason, go ahead and pull out all the stops. But this is how it’s done folks! If you’re on solid ground and can set aside your ego for just a few minutes, this is the blueprint for how you go from a loss to a tie to a victory in three short weeks.

And the fact that so many Washington, D.C., folks fail to understand this Zen-like notion is one reason we’re looking at consistent congressional gridlock.

Ah! But being the “half-full” guy I am, I’ll ward off these cold, short winter nights by simply basking in the glow of our City Council, which did the right thing—both in front of and behind the camera.

Mike December 19, 2011 at 01:17 PM
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! I forgot who said this originally, but goes like this; "Doesn't matter who gets the credit, as long as the job gets done"! Fantastic column Mr. Ward.
Jeff Ward December 19, 2011 at 01:18 PM
Mike, Thanks! Jeff
Mike December 19, 2011 at 01:19 PM
AND, Bravo to the Geneva Alderman responsible!
Bob McQuillan December 19, 2011 at 03:29 PM
Jeff: Couple of comments readers should think about: 1. Why work "behind the scenes," on this topic? All discussions should have been done in an open meeting, there isn't anything confidential to discuss on a tax levy. If three or more alderman "worked together" to lower the levy, they violated the Illinois Open Meeting Act. Behind the scenes work is what has gotten us into the current mess. 2. Voting NO without providing a solution doesn't make sense. One of my first bosses told me; don't come to me with a problem, come with a solution. Congrats to the alderman for bringing a solution. The lone NO vote for a tax levy increase on the School Board recognized the problem, as all members did, but he didn't provide a solution. The solution is simple: the school district could take no levy increase for the next 2 years but then then they would need to go to referendum for a tax rate increase in 3 years. The board doesn't want to take that approach because the community might not approve a rate increase. They take the increase through the tax levy. 3. No one becomes a fiscal conservative overnight, check past voting records. Don't lose faith in the School Board, I believe there is hope they will engage the community in the very near future. If several taxing boards are ready to change, is the community ready with solutions for them? Bottom line - are Geneva residents willing to get involved not just because the economy is bad, are they will to stay involved?
Jeff Ward December 19, 2011 at 04:00 PM
Bob, I mean this only as constructive criticism. The fact that you and FACTS don't understand the gist of this column is why, not only can you all not get anything done, but you're actually causing an equal an opposite reaction, i.e. you're making the situation worse. Jeff
Bob McQuillan December 19, 2011 at 04:54 PM
The last 2 school board meetings show that taxFACTS isn't making the situation worse . The board realizes that what we have been saying for 3 years is true. The first e-mail sent on August 22, 2008, predicted that what has happened would happen. I have hope the board is ready to change because it must. Want a copy of the first e-mail? Send a request to: taxfacts@sbcglobal.net You might think we are making the situation worse, but what have you personally done to change anything in Geneva? Writing about your grand ideas & Kiss the Sky doesn't make change anything. The many people who reached out to taxFACTS last week don't think we are making the situation worse. Change is coming to Geneva and everyone should do their part in making that change result in a better Geneva. The problem isn't only in Geneva. The average school tax increase in Batavia will be $464.00 in May 2012. What do they think of the Batavia Performing Arts Centre now? The Arts Centre is beautiful and state of the art but is it worth $464 per property owner every year for the next 30 years? You know their taxes will never go down. Just think if the proposed Rec Center was approved. Two fantastic buildings that would be empty because every few would be left in town to use them. As an opinion writer, you have a job to do but as a member of this community, you have a responsibility to it. Running and biking through the area are great but not enough. Have a Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

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