Guest Column: A lesson in gov’t bureaucracy
By Paul Gorski
I am a new board trustee at Rock Valley College and, as I usually do in any of my jobs, I ask many questions. Unfortunately, despite being a board member, I might have to request answers to my questions through formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests rather than a simple “May I see a copy of that contract?” More on that in a bit.
First, I want to thank local voters for electing me as a Rock Valley College Board Trustee. I received nearly 25,000 votes, which is quite a feat in an off-year election for a community college board position. People who know elections tell me those were phenomenal results. Thank you. I am humbled by the support.
Second, I am not now nor do I expect to be in a position of speaking officially for the Rock Valley College Board. The opinions I express here are my own. My opinions will not likely reflect the official position of the board or other board members. I wanted to make that clear because board “policy” states only the board chairman may speak on behalf of the board.
It is also a board policy that only the chairman and committee chairpersons ask the president of the college for certain information. There are seven trustees. One trustee is the chair and three other trustees are committee chairpersons. The three remaining trustees need to direct their questions for the president and staff to one of four other trustees. Sounds like an unnecessary communications hierarchy for a small seven-person board. Talk about red tape.
By the way, according to Merriam-Webster.com “red tape” refers to: “official routine or procedure marked by excessive complexity which results in delay or inaction.” Yep.
When I served on the county board, the twenty-eight board members could ask any staff member a question. The County Board Chairman at the time, Scott Christiansen, encouraged board members to go directly to staff. County staff answered our questions promptly and politely.
Back to the RVC present: the information in question now concerns certain contracts already made and signed part of the public record; and surveys or questionnaires used to determine the need for a new service on campus, also a public record. My initial request for this information was rebuffed, directing me to the board chair and or committee chair to obtain and discuss the issues.
Local residents may request the very same information simply by asking for it, and by mentioning FOIA the college would have to reply in a matter of days. I, on the other hand, a board trustee, have to go through channels, a process where I could be denied, and then discuss it in committee, which would not happen until next month at the earliest. As I mentioned to RVC officials, that workflow does not work for me.
I would like to review these documents, do some research, list my questions, and then discuss these matters with fellow trustees at an open meeting. I think that is a very reasonable request from an elected official.
I am not blaming RVC staff; these policies are board-driven. I am not sure if someone does not want me digging into these issues or maybe we just need some management training for the 21st century: agile, open and transparent leadership training. That said, I repeated my request to the board chair. As I write this article, I have not received a response.
My political friends and foes know that I ask questions. Lots of questions. I ask your questions, my questions and questions to increase the level of discussion on government financing. I have served on the Winnebago County Board, Cherry Valley Township Board, and Cherry Valley Library District Board (very briefly), and I never had to file a FOIA request to obtain documents like this before.
I hope I do not have to file one now. I will keep you posted.
Paul Gorski is a newly elected Rock Valley College Board Trustee who supports open meetings, open government, and equal ballot access to encourage public participation in local government.