How Local Government Really Works 101

And why you should pat our School Board members on the back for exceeding all those expectations!

All right, class! Quiet down! It’s time for another civics lesson. This time we’re gonna discuss how local elected boards interact, make decisions and evolve. It’s a truly fascinating subject.

The problem is, given the nature of our often frenetic lives, we tend to ignore city councils and their ilk until those bodies are faced with a dilemma that directly affects us on an a base emotional level.

Perfect examples would be the Pure Oil building fracas and any time the School Board talks about the tax levy.

But because these contentious topics don’t come up very often, when we do start paying attention, we only get small snippets of how it’s supposed to work. Then, pre-conditioned by our salvation-in-30-minutes sitcom world, we’re severely disappointed when local government doesn’t turn on a dime.

Ah!, But for folks like me who follow these public bodies on a regular basis, we see them from the top down and not the single issue up. We realize there’s an ebb and flow to the process, which frequently consists of two steps forward and one back.

The truth is, we’ve covered all these things before, but never under the auspices of one column. So now that I have your attention, let’s start!

For those of you familiar with the financial markets, I frequently like to compare government workings to a giant moving average. It doesn’t always work that way, but the process is set up to consider tradition and move forward slowly. This way, one guy can’t bring the whole thing crashing down with a monumentally bad decision.

We don’t want our elected boards acting like an episode of Mob Wives.

The best illustration of this phenomenon is, unlike your average CEO, mayors and board presidents wield virtually no power. There’s certainly something to be said for setting the meeting agendas, but in the end, the most they get to do is break ties.

Thus, to get anything done, they must create a consensus.

And the same goes for the board members. We all love the rogue councilman who, like John Brown, rails against every single fiscal decision, but more often than not, they manage to avoid accomplishing absolutely anything.

The great former Geneva alderman Paul DesCouteaux is a prime example. I loved Paul, but he said “no” so often that no one listened.

Open meeting violations clearly considered, 90 to 95 percent of the time, these boards have already come to a consensus before the meeting even starts. And we’re not talking back room deals here — though that can happen. And this is exactly how it’s supposed to work.

Can a large and well-prepared crowd sway the proceedings? You bet! But how often does that happen? We’d have to go back to the Pure Oil building battle for the last one.

So whenever a politician proclaims, “I’m going to run it like a business,” you know he’s full of it, because government can’t be run like a business. It’s not set up that way. On the rare occasion a supermajority does make it possible, you get wacky laws like the heavily Republican Arizona legislature is passing.

It’s truly frightening.

Because these bodies are run by frail humans, especially when the citizenry is generally absent, they tend to develop their own culture. We’ve talked about the “municipal mindset” many times before. If we’re not inserting ourselves into the process, then they think everything’s fine.

Until the Great Recession, Geneva tended toward a “nothing is too good for us” mentality. And it starts with their constituents. Remember, the resident who told the mayor she was couldn’t bear the thought of telling her friends they’d have to turn right at the new Aldi?

One of the few guarantees in this life is that creating a consensus to change a government culture takes time. It’s another part of those vaunted checks and balances. We don’t want our boards acting just like a squirrel trying to cross East Side Drive.

So when you consider everything we just covered, I’m astounded at how fast our School Board has made the necessary debt-driven shifts. Are they perfect? Of course not, but I’ve never seen any elected body make so many difficult adjustments in the face of strained circumstances.

Instead of resorting to the more typical fisticuffs, they’re managing to come to a regular consensus.

While every last one of ‘em deserves credit, I firmly believe Board President Mark Grosso’s leadership has been key. This is how it’s done, folks. If any of you have a hankering for running, please study exactly what Grosso has done and how he’s done it.

Since he chooses not to blow his own horn, I’ll make this your homework assignment.

Class! I know you’re worried about the prospect of a written test, but there won’t be one this semester. Your final exam will be to take this newfound knowledge out into the real world and apply it!

I’ll be happy to grade you then.


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Colin C. November 21, 2012 at 01:22 PM
Very nice and quite accurate Jeff. Thank you. We have had the "pleasure" of living in a town where the city government and the school board did not function as well as they do in Geneva. Long story short, it was a pretty nice community when we moved there in 1974. When we left in 2002 property values were 2/3 those in towns close by, the downtown was nearly deserted, they had a staff of 12 security guards in the middle and high schools, and....well, you get the picture. We tried to be active in the politics of the city but we were never able to overcome the "good 'ol boys club", made up of developers, absentee landlords, and the politicians that they kept in office and who really ran the show. I understand that things have started to turn around there in the last few of years and glad for that. Coming back home to Geneva was one of the happiest moments in our lives. People are engaged, fairly well informed. The discussion and planning that has and does go on here is amazing. We make mistakes and we must try to stay on top of things but by and large this is a community that takes pride in itself and wants to continue to improve. Yes, the School Board did a good job in an extremely difficult situation. I hope that they get the credit that they deserve.
Jeff Ward November 21, 2012 at 02:17 PM
Colin, Thanks for the compliment! This was a fun column to write. Jeff
Mike B. November 21, 2012 at 03:44 PM
I don't think I've ever read a more succinct, accurate, and cogent piece on local government. What everyone tends to forget is that democracy itself is an inherently messy, less-than-efficient process. That's what happens when all of the people have a right to participate and self-govern. Want to really run government "like a business" and cut down on all the delays, red tape and costs? Then try a dictatorship or a police state, they REALLY get things done fast and efficiently...
Jeff Ward November 21, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Mike, Wow! Thanks! The problem is, when you do write something like this without any rancor whatsoever, it tends to fall flat! People either ignore it or they quickly forget about it. Apparently, that's the lot of a columnist! Jeff


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