Guest post by Peter Breen
The number one issue for folks in my recent campaign for Lombard village trustee was holding the line on taxes and spending. After I won the race and was sworn in, I realized the practical difficulty of a part-time member of a village board having to watch over a roughly $85 million budget and a staff of almost 300 employees. While I’ve always been dedicated to transparency in government activities and spending, in my new role as an elected official, I saw transparency as something that would help me to better serve the residents of Lombard.
Transparency would allow Lombard residents – along with other community groups dedicated to good government – to use their knowledge and experience to improve village government. Whether by identifying inefficiencies, proposing alternatives for the supplies and services being purchased, or suggesting alternate methods for delivering the very practical services (fire protection, water, sewer, roads, lighting, etc.) that the village provides, with transparency, our residents could help change government for the better.
All that said, my first task was figuring out how to bring greater transparency to Lombard. I wanted our Board to adopt a formal and detailed policy, so that there would be no questions or arguments about what information would or would not go on our website. As a formal action of the Village Board, that policy would have the force of law – and if someone wanted to take information off the website in the future, they would have to go to the Village Board and have the policy amended to remove that information.
Next, I needed to know what to put in the policy. This was the place where the Illinois Policy Institute’s Local Transparency Project proved invaluable. The Local Transparency Project provides a broad ten-point checklist, along with a detailed scoring rubric, of a range of information that gives a good picture to the public of how a local government does its business. The Project also referenced a bill filed in Springfield by Sen. Dan Duffy, and that bill gave me a few ideas, too. I have the advantage of being a practicing attorney and having drafted model legislation in the past, so I was able to take these source materials and shape them into appropriate legal language.
My next task was trying to figure out how to raise the policy for consideration. Almost every item on our meeting agenda is generated either by our village staff members or through one of our regular committees – none of which really cover the issue of transparency. In the end, I stopped worrying and sent the proposed policy to the village manager and asked that it be put on the next meeting’s agenda.
Little did I know that this would cause a firestorm. I was told that this was “not how things are done”!
After some back-and-forth, the item was allowed to appear on the next board meeting agenda. At the meeting, the Board voted to send the policy to the Finance Committee, so as to see how much it would cost to implement the policy. I also asked that the policy be sent to the committee I chair, Economic & Community Development, to evaluate the positive impact of increased transparency on business and community groups. While my committee recommended moving the policy forward, the Finance Committee recommended gutting the policy, citing high costs to put our spending, salary, and contract information on the village website.
After the committee reports came back, our Board considered the matter in a “workshop” session – suffice it to say, things did not look good coming out of the workshop. But, there was a silver lining: that board workshop began a healthy public debate about transparency, in our local news media and online. The reaction from the public was uniformly positive and in favor of greater transparency. This made my job a lot easier, but I still had a lot to do to counter the impression that transparency is “expensive” or “complicated.” Fortunately, due to the work of the Illinois Policy Institute, I could cite examples of how other local governments had inexpensively and simply implemented various parts of our proposed transparency policy. Heck, I even volunteered to help out, in case anyone was concerned about a transparency task taking substantial additional staff time.
Even so, there were bumps in the road. We had a lot of discussions back and forth about the various provisions within the policy. There was even a point when a version of the policy was on the board agenda for a vote, but that version wouldn’t have required our village spending information to be put online. While that policy was a lot better than nothing, I just knew that, with a little more time, the support could be found for a more robust policy.
A few weeks later, we were scheduled to have a final “put up or shut up” board workshop on transparency. I literally walked into village hall that night not knowing whether the votes were there for the stronger policy. Five minutes later, I learned that we not only had a majority but that all 7 members of the Lombard Village Board were unanimous in support of the full policy. After we passed the policy, I learned from the Illinois Policy Institute that our new policy is the strongest transparency policy adopted by any village board or city council in the state of Illinois.
The whole process took roughly five months, and it was worth every moment, because the fruits of the effort will come through in more transparent and open government in Lombard for years to come. I hope that our example will embolden folks in other cities and towns to push for transparency – and not to give up just because of one or two (or many) setbacks. While there are some folks who are against transparency, the vast majority of people in our state favor transparency: with a little hard work, you too can effect the will of this vast majority and bring greater transparency to your city or town.
Peter Breen is a trustee for the village of Lombard. The Village recently passed the strongest transparency legislation the Institute is aware of. If you are interested in seeing similar legislation passed in your community, please do not hesitate to contact Mark Cavers at email@example.com or 217-528-8800.