DeKalb’s finance advisory committee may be treated with more respect this year

Have you ever heard of the sheep-and-collie routine? It’s when one or more collies nip at the heels of a flock of sheep, to force them toward a destination the sheep really don’t want to go.

Sheep-and-collie applies to both human and animal activity, and in both cases it’s a fact that the “collie” does not respect the “sheep.”

Now, DeKalb’s finance advisory committee (FAC) is nowhere near being a flock of sheep, but over the past 10 years it’s been clear to me that city managers and their minions have worked hard to become successful collies. When Mayor Van Buer reconstituted the committee in 2008, new appointees were treated promptly to threatening letters from the city attorney regarding the Open Meetings Act, and from there the intimidation tactics have never totally stopped.

There was a FAC meeting Tuesday evening, and I’ve listened to it. The FAC has been meeting at the police station for half a year, and since moving these meetings out of council chambers, the city no longer video-records the FAC. They post audio recordings instead, as a “compromise” since there is public demand for FAC info, and I’ve formed a hypothesis about why. So I was pretty interested when FAC member Lynn Neeley began describing the advantage of having video recordings of their meetings.

When you have a video recording of an event, even a conversation, you have body language. You have facial expressions. You’ve got people who are moving. You can see the way people move their bodies. I sit like this and talk to Steve, that means one thing. If I stood like this and talked to Steve, that means something else. So when you take away the visual, you lose [crosstalk][laughter]. But my gosh, if all you have is a tape recording, I could be making vulgar gestures with my hands [crosstalk]. So there’s a tremendous loss, in what the real significance of things might be, bringing meaning to things, you know?

Yes, I do know. It’s right in my wheelhouse, in fact.

Audio-only is actually good for a couple things, such as making it easier to tell when someone’s lying. But in council’s absence, and with no video evidence being recorded, the city manager began stacking the room with as many staff members in attendance as FAC members — sometimes more. And not only that, but the crossbar of the upside-down “U” configuration of the tables was filled with staff. FAC meetings became more like staff meetings with a couple of FAC hangers-on clinging to the sides.

A really good reason for recording FAC meetings, then, is to make sure staff are behaving themselves and leaving FAC in charge of its own meetings.

It did sound like FAC was in charge of its Tuesday’s meeting. Ms. Neeley commented favorably on the “new configuration,” and it sounded like there were fewer staff in attendance, and that they were sitting on the sidelines as they did for council’s goal-setting session last week.

I don’t know where that change came from, but it’s a good trend, and may be getting better. The mayor has announced he’s working on devoting a meeting to hashing out “meeting logistics.”