'Troublemakers' on boards can serve public well

Monday, July 15, 2013

Irving Janis, a research psychologist at Yale University, popularized the concept of "groupthink" in the early 1970s, writing a book that contrasted the faulty decision-making that led to the Bay of Pigs invasion with the decisions that saved the world from nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

Wikipedia defines it as "a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the groups results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome.

"Group members try t0 minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences."

Sound familiar?

We're not pointing fingers at any governmental body in particular, and could cite numerous examples where good decisions were reached, despite the temptation to avoid conflict and go along.

The Gazette is the only local media that covers local board meetings on a regular basis -- actually attending them, not accepting sanitized, second hand versions of the events -- but we'd have to admit, reporters often prefer the "just-get-along" kind of meeting.

No one likes to watch the clock tick toward midnight while one board member or another questions actions of administrators or attempts to sway other members to what may be a wise, though unpopular, decision.

Or worse, waiting outside while board members wrangle in an "executive session."

The truth is, however, the "troublemakers" on the boards may be serving their constituents best.

Consider the case of Dr. Holly Thacker, a member of the Cuyahoga Heights, Ohio, school board.

When she was elected the board, the former superintendent suggested she join the dress code committee, but she held out for the financial committee instead.

When she began looking at the financial reports, she noticed that an audit noted "excessive expenditures" for technology products and services.

After she noticed bills were being paid without financial approval or scrutiny, she was told school districts didn't budget like private businesses.

"I sat in executive meetings and had school attorneys, administrators and board members scream at me because I was asking questions. It looked to me like a culture of complicity, with so many people related to each other, or friends with each other, in a small community," she said.

It turned out, she was right to be worried.

After she shared her concerns with law enforcement, it was found the school's technology director and others set up shell corporations and used fake invoices to make it appear that the district was buying hardware, software and services and then pocketing the cash.

The former technology director went to prison for 11 years and four months, and will have to repay the district the $3.4 million involved in the embezzlement, if he ever earns that much money.

Thankfully, schemes like the one uncovered in Ohio are rare, and the vast majority of employees and elected officials have the best interest of the taxpayers and other constituents in minds.

Still, it's a good idea to elect a few "troublemakers" from time to time.

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  • Would not say troublemakers but independent thinkers and if the thinkers are generally on the other side of the group or the only ones to have their view, that is not good....but it does give the media something to write about.

    -- Posted by dennis on Tue, Jul 16, 2013, at 7:57 AM
  • A group that thinks independent thinkers are good only when they're not generally opposed to the group is convinced (likely by groupthink) the group can have their cake and eat it too.

    -- Posted by Aaron Kircher on Tue, Jul 16, 2013, at 11:28 AM
  • I think Dennis has made a very odd statement. Perhaps he miswrote it. Couldn't have meant that.

    -- Posted by bob s on Tue, Jul 16, 2013, at 3:49 PM
  • EDITOR'S NOTE: The following was submitted online:

    THIS is an "AMEN" to the Editorial Viewpoint Regarding "Troublemakers" on Boards. This reader would also like to start changing the way these folks are viewed and even changing the word "troublemaker" to "changemaker!" Being a catalyst for change is tough, beautiful things can come from small conflicts: if that little grain of sand never entered a clam, we would never get a pearl!

    "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

    Margaret Mead

    Now for my piggyback on the editorial: Should Taxpayers Keep Bearing the Financial Burden???

    Absolutely NOT! When it is your own money, it is spent differently. With the economy like it is, shouldn't spending be limited or very carefully reviewed? Spending money is not a problem when someone else is picking up the bill.

    As most of you know the Hitchcock County School District recently passed a $7.4 Million bond on a narrow margin, which people were told is what had to happen to keep the school system going, not true. What most do not know is that what that money got us was a rushed project that was not done right and cracker jack buildings that are less than substantial.

    Another less common fact is that a special board was formed to make decisions on building spending and areas of improvement. This "special board" of hand picked (not elected members) includes some school board members and is designed to raise money and use there own funds on projects they want done. At this time one of the projects on the radar is to build a $500,000 all weather track, which they cannot afford to build, let alone maintain. Not to mention that it will be built on ground the school doesn't even own, that will benefit only a handful of students. Which begs the question, why are we seeking to improve existing ground and increase the value of something the school doesn't even own? Again, this board doesn't have the money to do this project and now they are going to the school board to ask for it, therefore making it the taxpayers financial burden, on something that isn't educational and benefits very few. When economic times are tough, we make tough choice!

    s, we work with what we have, like two perfectly good existing tracks that we have access to less than 30 miles from the school. It worked when I was in school, it works now!

    Even if part of the money is available now, how can we guarantee the money will be there in the future for continual maintenance? In my opinion, this is not a sustainable investment, and if it is, I need to see the proof. It needs to be discussed openly at a board meeting, allow the public to have input, and discussed at a later meeting when constituents have had an opportunity to review it. Instead, the agenda is posted 48 hours before the meeting, placed in locations with little traffic, all in hopes these decisions will be made without taxpayers awareness.

    More financial burden: The superintendent also created a special building fund to allow board members to spend money on whatever the board sees fit, which is taxpayers money in somewhat of a slush fund. When the bond was passed no one at that time supported a new shop and the public (taxpayers) were told this was not part of the future plans...since then the school has taken it upon themselves to build a $350,000 shop with "special building fund" dollars. Since it wasn't going to pass with the bond, again they found some way to PUSH it through while we are paying the bill.

    Speaking of bills, evaluation rose $30,000,000 last year and the mill levy dropped .02 yet took in thousands more. It stands to do the same this year. Is this the time to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on projects we cannot afford to maintain, in a school district with declining numbers? I don't think so! Taxpayers need to stand for their rights, question spending, get the details, and be informed. The character and integrity of our leaders is out the window when these things are allowed to happen, checks and balances do not exist. Board meetings should be discussions, educational, informative debates, not briefings on what has already been decided or rushed decisions that have not be researched or backed. Board members have the right, and are expected to question spending, they owe it to their constituents who voted them in!

    If these projects can be built and maintained by donations or school funds alone, that needs to be shown, but if it is like anything else and spending occurs initially and maintenance costs fall on the taxpayer, that raises major concerns and is irresponsible spending.

    We are already turning a blind eye to administrator spending and not holding them accountable for fuel costs, cell phone usage, meals purchased for them and others, this time we need answers and support for the spending that occurs.

    If the public were allowed on the agenda, allowed more than two minutes to speak at meetings, and allowed to ask questions or request more backing for spending, things would seem less shady and more on the up and up, but as it stands, we are led to question the integrity of the board and administration. This happy spending is our burden and should not be forced on us, money does not grow on trees, it is hard earned by people who work for it, and no one is paying our bills, so we are forced to make responsible decisions, as should you be!!

    In conclusion, another one of my favorite quotes:

    "The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."

    ― Albert Einstein

    Taking a stand, asking questions, being involved is not making trouble, it's doing the exact opposite, IT IS MAKING GOOD!!!


    B.O.H.I.C.A. Citizens-tired of footing the bill for quick, careless, and uninformed decisions, and tired of not getting answers.

    -- Posted by bcrosby on Thu, Jul 18, 2013, at 7:12 AM
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