Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. May 2, 2021.
Everyone remembers those math worksheets from elementary school. You know, the ones where you had to solve problem after problem, showing you knew how to perform the arithmetic involved.
When you got to higher grades and the problems became more complex, the sheets had another instruction from the teacher: “Show your work.” You had to prove you weren’t just using a calculator to do the work for you.
City officials would be well advised to follow that instruction. When you make a claim or a decision, show residents how you arrived at that conclusion. Show your work.
Two recent cases illustrate the need for the city’s elected and administrative officials to do a better job on this count. The decision on brush site fees was one. The plans at first called for a hike from 50 cents per bag of yard waste to $2 per bag. That’s a fourfold jump.
Residents said they wanted to hear how the city arrived at the proposed figure. Council members didn’t have all the information they wanted, either. Councilwoman Kate Beaton had to ask for projections for site expenses and revenues from the proposed fees.
The primary concern was the sudden rise in the cost. On April 27 the council backtracked, setting a fee of $1 per bag. It was a 9-1 vote and the fees will begin in mid-May. Officials also gave financial projections, saying the site will probably run a deficit.
The other event was the hiring of Dr. Jeneise Briggs as the city’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator. The position will serve both the city and county. In announcing the hire, Interim City Manager Dave Solberg said there is “much work to be done as we strive to create a more inclusive community.” His statement needed more. Remember, this wasn’t an off-the-cuff comment. It came from a press release he had plenty of time to prepare.
In what ways does he believe the community needs to be more inclusive? What does he hope to accomplish? Questions also remain about what precisely Briggs’ authority and role will be. Given that this is a position for both the city and county, what’s the breakdown on compensation and the chain of command to which she’ll report?
Some read Solberg’s comments as an indictment of Eau Claire, a claim that the community itself is racist. We don’t believe that’s the case. A more nuanced description serves better, and we think there’s an example of that from Vice President Kamala Harris.
In a recent interview, Harris said she does not think America is racist, but that it does have racism in its history and continues to struggle with it. The presence of racism in American history is undeniable. Slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Acts, Jim Crow laws and many more examples give testimony to that fact.
It is also unquestionable that racism remains a challenge in our country. But specific events are distinct from the nation itself. In the same way, incidents in the Chippewa Valley are distinct from the communities themselves. Are there racists present? Yes. Are they representative of their communities as a whole? We don’t believe so.
By presenting material detailing how the decision on yard waste fees was made, the city could have made a stronger argument for the initial proposal. At minimum, council members wouldn’t have had to ask for information they should have already had in hand. Would the $2 fee have led to some protests? Of course. But the city would have been in a far better position to defend it than it was the first time it was discussed.
Showing your work in government means one other key thing: you understand that you must sell the community on the direction you wish to go. Elected officials remain beholden to the people. Government is a sales operation as much as it is leadership. Explaining how you reached a decision is an easy way to demonstrate that you know you cannot simply dictate an outcome when taxpayer dollars are involved.
We don’t believe either decision was made in bad faith. But we do believe both could have benefited from officials better showing their work.