We’ve spent 4 sessions going over in excruciating detail some of the flaws in the City’s report to the Council on whether or not the City should establish a commission/committee (hereafter called simply committee) to look at parking/traffic issues (hereafter traffic). Bear in mind that traffic is among the highest concerns for residents of Lake Forest, and with the prospects of adding 35,000 extra vehicle trips per day as a result of the new homes approved, the prospects can only get worse.
In Part 1 we examined the report’s major flaw – failing to look at the benefits of having a committee. If we set up a committee, can we expect to see fewer accidents, fewer fatalities, or reduced travel time? If we can’t expect these types of benefits, why are we considering this at all? But if you read the City’s report you won’t find even the slightest hint about what benefits we might expect.
In Part 2 we looked at some of the other major flaws. For example, the City only looked at “staff time” without considering the costs of that time – 12 hours a month for a $200 per hour Director is far different from 12 hours for a clerk making $20 per hour.
In Part 3 we looked at some of the minor flaws, such as the City’s failure to use the proper statistic (median vs. mean) when examining the data, and their failure to look at other cost factors besides staff time.
Part 4 summarized the flaws and examined them within the context of the City’s claim that the report was not “exhaustive”, coming up with some excusable flaws and some inexcusable ones.
In this final article I want to address some implications.
In the old computer world they had an expression “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. It meant exactly what it seems to mean – if you provide the Council flawed reports they are likely to make flawed decisions. Earlier this year I talked about BBK & “Oops”, a sarcastic reference to the fact that many times the Council makes a decision (e.g., forbidding day laborers, excluding sex offenders from parks) and then has to reverse itself.
Actions, especially laws, that have to be reversed are problematic. They are costly, counterproductive, and at times harmful. Flawed reports are not the only contributors to this process, and it should be obvious to anyone who ever attended a recent City Council meeting, that not all the five bulbs in our main chandelier have the highest wattage. But flawed reports can only increase the probability of the Council making poor decisions including passing poor laws that must later be reversed.
Continuance is the word that parliamentarians use when they mean people can’t make up their minds, so they put off until tomorrow what they should be doing today. In 2013 we had more than our share of continuances (e.g., wildlife feeding ordinance, use of electronic devices, prayer in Council, PCN variances, lobbying contract 5 year strategic plan, changes to business signage, waste management RFP, waste management no contact provision, IT contract), and one of the core reasons for the rash of continuances was the poor quality of staff reports. Many times Council members had to ask for more and better information.
Our latest example of the traffic committee report is a perfect example of how a flawed report leads to a continuance. Unable to profit from the data in the report, the Council asked for the item to be continued, as they have for a dozen topics this year, some three times.
Continuances are not necessarily bad by themselves, but they do create problems. For one thing, they are expensive, not only in terms of time (which is why Council meetings went for record durations this year), but also resources, as materials must be duplicated. Second, they mean postponing actions at a time when action may be called for, and everyone knows the age old adage that “a stitch in time saves nine”.
Continuances are also counterproductive because, in excess, they give the appearance of incompetence. Once again, flawed reports and the need for continuances aren’t the only indicators that the City Council is a few beers light of a six-pack, but they definitely account for some of the slippage.
CULTURE OF MEDIOCRITY
Anyone can make a mistake, and any group of people can produce a report with some errors. But time after time this City churns out flawed reports as if this was the goal, rather than an aberration. Without a culture of excellence, mediocrity becomes the lesson of the day. Unfortunately, mediocrity tends to breed more mediocrity, and so, over time, one can expect that things get worse, which is exactly what’s happening in the City. In my next series of articles about flawed reports we’ll trace this phenomenon.
THE BUCK STOPS HERE
Harry Truman was famous for saying that the Buck stopped at his desk, and so it should. We can criticize Mr. Dunek, the highly paid City Manager who ultimately is responsible for the quality of the reports, and who, it should be noted, recently received a $10,000 bonus for his good performance. Of course Mr. Dunek should not be judged solely by the quality of the reports his staff complete, and I’m sure there are many areas in which he provides excellent service to the Council. But the buck doesn't stop at Mr. Dunek's desk. Harry Truman's buck may stop at the dais where the Council is responsible for setting the agenda and evaluating performance. If Councilwoman Kathy McCullough constantly praises the staff, and if Councilman Scott Voigts votes to give Dunek a $10,000 bonus, why should Dunek worry about the quality of his reports? His bosses, the City Council, appear to be satisfied. Indeed, between their lies, their self-puffery, and their self-serving comments, there is nary a word about quality, and one has to wonder, often, whether they have even read these reports in the first place.
In the final analysis, one would think the buck stops at the dais, but I think it goes beyond there. The quality of the people on the dais is a reflection of the people who voted for them. They are our representatives and we put them in office. If they don't set the tone in their own behavior, and if they don't demand quality in their reports, the system itself will not work. And if we don't elect people who act responsibly, it won't happen.