The “T” word

He said it. I knew he would. It was only a matter of time.

New mayor Cohen Barnes called the DeKalb city council a “team” during the last council meeting.

It’s horrifying.

Okay, maybe not so much horrifying as tiresome. It signals this council will probably not offer improvement over the last. But let me start from the beginning, and you decide.

On a wintry Saturday the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and NIU co-hosted a workshop for people who were interested in running for office in the local elections in 2017. Jerry Smith, who would become mayor in that election, was there. Cohen Barnes was there, too.

The training involved speakers who gave overviews of history and structure of government, which wasn’t bad. After that there was a panel discussion involving several former members of local public bodies. By this I mean they had dug up several toxic a-holes who’d “served” on city council and library board and it was at this point we heard about “teams.” A former library board member, for example, bragged about how his board stood together to disregard every criticism of its plans for a new library. Probably not coincidentally, this was the same board that secretly made plans to buy the old DeKalb Clinic for this purpose via multiple violations of the Open Meetings Act.

I’ve been a member of several good teams in the private sector and have helped to build a couple. But I don’t buy that it’s a particularly good model for government unless you clearly view the general public as the coach instead of an invariably vain and manipulative CEO. As we see in the example above, the library board member remained loyal to a “team” with a “vision of the future” that was so special they refused to share it with the same general public that had a lawful right to this information, and was footing the bill besides. Who was the coach in this dynamic? Who was leading them astray?

Teams are also weaponized. As city clerk I was accused of “not being a team player” when I tried to negotiate. My response to the demand to hand over the Seal of the City to the city manager’s office wasn’t “no,” it was an offer to discuss my office hours, which was completely ignored. The two offices could and should have kept talking to ultimately sign off on an arrangement that worked all right for everyone, like reasonable people do every day. But at city hall, “be a team player” is code for “go along with it, or else.”

Teams are misused in DeKalb continually to groom board officers, as evidenced by the observation that they change for the worse or “drift” from their mission after a time. The goal appears to be to separate the elected officers from the oath they took to uphold the well-being of their constituents above relationships with their pals on the board and staff. It is also used as a weapon in government by bullies, as former clerks can attest. What can we do? Emphasize the oath over team-building. Train the distinctions between private ethics and public ethics. Most of all, call out bad behavior consistently so it’s harder to normalize it.