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It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it



Column_headshot_JOHN_HA
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July 01, 2014 | 04:44 PM
An open letter to the Lake Geneva City Council:

You’re reeling from the realization that two members of the street department allegedly gave away thousands of dollars in salt and sand to private companies, and sold city oil and scrap metal to fund a secret slush fund.

Based on the front page story by reporter Chris Schultz this week, you’re trying to figure out what to do next.

Here are some suggestions:

Never let a good crisis go to waste

A crisis can be a mandate to make changes. A mess is an opportunity to clean things up. A new beginning. A defining moment.

Some problems have festered for years. Now is the time to tackle them. If not now, when?

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Remember — you’re in charge

Maybe you didn’t sign up for some of the tough decisions that might have to be made. Maybe some of you feel like the challenges are above your pay grade. None of that matters. You offered your services and your neighbors elected you. Step up now and you’ll help secure the city’s future. That’s your job.

Examine the chain of command

The relationship between city hall, the water department and the street department is so convoluted it boggles the mind. Clear up the lines. Make a chain of command more than something on paper. Make it clear who’s in charge of what. Then demand that they do their jobs.

Review management

I know it will be tough. I like them, too. But this isn’t a popularity contest. The city is a business and you’re in charge. Sometimes that means making enemies and losing friends.

Someone was asleep at the wheel in managing the street department. Someone needs to be held accountable. Normally, it’s not my style to point fingers. But sometimes change requires making waves and naming names. Certainly those implicated in criminal activities have culpability, and they’ve been charged with numerous felonies.

But two others are at least partly to blame: City Administrator Dennis Jordan and Public Works Director Dan Winkler. I’m reminded of what someone in the know about city hall said to me a few months ago: “There are never any consequences.” Let’s change that perception.

Winkler told investigators he never saw what was happening in the street department and “mostly went on trust.” Jordan said the whole situation “hurt.”

No one has said: “It was my job to make sure something like this didn’t happen and I dropped the ball.”

The buck has to stop somewhere.

Forget the good ol’ boy network

The “one hand washes the other” system may work in the fictional TV show Mayberry. Maybe it worked in Lake Geneva in the past, but it clearly doesn’t anymore. The street department fiasco proves it. We can no longer think “hiring from outside” is something to be avoided. The who-you-know culture is dysfunctional and downright dangerous.

Trust but verify

It was disturbing to find out that the “slush fund” at the street department was discovered years ago. A former mayor demanded that it be shut down, but it wasn’t. That shows several things. First, a lack of review by top management — Winkler and Jordan. Second, and most telling, it showed how little respect the street department heads had for their bosses. Obviously, those involved in the slush fund knew no one would check on them.

And it only blew up when an anonymous person went to authorities and suggested an investigation. Trust is nice, but good management also requires checks and balances.

Be as transparent as possible

I know this is difficult and you obviously can’t tell us everything that goes on because of the confidentiality that goes along with personnel management. But the city isn’t a closed business that’s allowed to keep all it’s dirty laundry in-house. This is the people’s business and, within limits, they need to know what’s happening. Tread carefully, but don’t forget the people have a right to know.

Play with confidence

The culture of an organization starts at the top. That’s where you are.

Obviously, the culture of the street department was such that it encouraged the malfeasance that’s alleged.

Based on police reports, it was the top two leaders of the department who were involved in the misdeeds.

Others may have known about it but did nothing because the culture discouraged anyone from saying “Stop! This is wrong!”

A new culture needs to be created — and you, the city council, is in charge of making that happen.

It will take nerve and confidence to do that. Don’t be afraid. Don’t step back. Plow ahead. You’ll feel better after it’s all done.

And don’t take my word as gospel or feel you’re the only one to blame.

I haven’t always fulfilled my role as a watchdog.

I’m with you on this. You’re the best city council this city has had for awhile.

You can’t let the naysayers win this one. Make us proud.

Sincerely,

John Halverson

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.

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