Governance and civic responsibility, take 2

I recently talked to representatives of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB). As mentioned previously, I really like their mission statement and the ideals they lay out for board members of all school boards. After a wonderful and in-depth chat with Cathy Talbert (Associate Executive Director of Field and Policy Services), I came to learn that the IASB is going “all in” with John Carver’s “Policy Governance model“. This is reflected primarily in how the IASB has recently re-architected its own policies, and further trickles down to how the IASB will be training new board members. It is a model that utilizes servant-leadership and clearly states organizational purposes with the sole intent of having those purposes fulfilled. Again, the word “accountability” comes up – not with the intent of going on a witch hunt, but rather, for the good of us all, seeking out mutually beneficial solutions.

This is the kind of mindset I have when I ask various city managers/planners and the school district Business office about Tax Incremental Financing (TIF). TIF, and it’s brother “Enterprise Zones”, have a very strong focus on “economic development”. Which sounds all good and dandy. What really concerns me is that 1) the public is largely uneducated on these issues and 2) a significant lack of accountability on promises and goals. I believe city managers and planners have good intentions at heart. I think there is a systemic mentality about meeting the letter of the law but not really addressing the intent of the law (another example of normalized deviance).

Let’s take another example – the district’s Promises Made Promises Kept (PMPK) committee. I have harped on this before, and I will probably do so again. Back in June of 2010, I attended a PMPK meeting and personally asked Mr. Gene Logas if he could post online some of the awesome documents that they share at PMPK meetings. Again in March of 2012, I formally asked Mr. Logas, the Board and Dr. Wiegand the same thing, to post all informational documents on the committee website. In October of 2012, I again made the request that documents be posted online for Unit 4 committees.  In February of 2013 I made a post of documents I had personally received. Another post in March of 2013, with a little bit of delicious irony (Agenda Item V: How to Effectively Share with the Community the Work and Oversight of the Committee). At various times throughout 2012, 2013 and even this year, I asked individual committee members for relevant documents, and asked them to convey my wish that documents be posted online. On Feb 10th of this year (almost three weeks ago), I asked the Board (again) to have these documents posted on the PMPK committee page. I was told by the Board that these documents are indeed online. Imagine my surprise! So I asked where.

Silence.

Why am I so anal about this? Why am I “wasting” the time of various administrators and board members? Why am I making a big deal about this?

I hope to make it a point that I am not shaking my finger at individuals; entire Administrations have come and gone, and the Board has changed many times since 2010. The problem is that nobody else really cares (from my point of view), we have all come to expect that the PMPK committee (and other Unit 4 committees) have a standard way of operating, and that’s how it is done. Yes, I get it that the public is invited to attend any and all committee meetings (with the rare exception). I get it that information is freely shared at these meetings. Good job, keep it up! But sharing information at meetings does not equal engaging the community, nor engendering a sense of ownership. I realize posting informational documents isn’t a silver bullet either – it will not magically, instantly make all the stakeholders suddenly enjoy all the sunshine and transparency. This is just one step among many.

The exact same thing applies for the City of Champaign and TIF. The same thing applies in many areas of “governance” in our lives. We have lost the art of being informed and holding each other accountable.

The solution? Society itself must change. We have to think about others.

In Lisa Delpit’s insightful and enlightening “Other People’s Children”, she quotes a Native Alaskan teacher she had the honor of befriending; “In order to teach you, I must know you.” We must allow our walls to break down and get to know each other.

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