Daily Herald opinion: We need to keep watch on officials, but assuming sinister motives weakens our democracy

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes bristled a bit on Monday when a speaker during the village board's commenting period suggested he and other officials would benefit personally if the Bears end up anchoring a $5 billion redevelopment at the former Arlington Park property.

Hayes called the comments "offensive," and he's right. And the exchange highlights an unfortunate tendency in all our politics - a rush to find some sinister personal motive behind every action elected leaders take that contradicts one's own point of view.

It's a notion worth reflection as we head into the final stretch of the campaign for local municipal and school offices in the suburbs.

To be sure, history, local and otherwise, teaches us to recognize the temptations that abound in overseeing vast sums of taxpayer and development dollars, and to watch carefully to ensure that officials, whether the cause is fundamental greed or the lure of the moment, don't succumb.

But there is an important difference between cautious oversight and assumed corruption. When we step over the line from the former to the latter, we degrade our public discussions and weaken our public institutions.

The Bears proposal Arlington Heights is studying would have a transformative impact on the village and the entire region. With the departure of a prior suburban icon like the Arlington International Racecourse, it would be the height of incompetence and professional negligence for elected leaders not to invite and pursue opportunities that could replace or perhaps even improve upon what has been lost. To translate such attention to duty into a lust for personal gain ignores what is at stake and misunderstands public policymaking.

That is not to say critics of the Bears proposal or anyone with financial, policy, aesthetic, developmental or other concerns about it don't have valid points. They certainly do, some of them raised by Arlington Heights trustees themselves. But that doesn't absolve a board from the responsibility to explore its options.

"We are nowhere near in a position to make money off of this property, except if something gets built there and the tax bills go up, every resident in this community will receive a benefit from that," said Trustee Jim Tinaglia, who has been a critic of the Bears plans.

Even more to the point, another wary trustee, John Scaletta, added that "insinuating that something is happening behind closed doors is wrong ... and we just don't need people out there creating hysteria ..."

Throughout the suburbs, we are on the cusp of decisions that will place our friends and neighbors on park boards, library boards, school boards, village boards, city councils and more. If our democracy is to have any validity, it must be based on the assumption that we will have some trust in the community loyalty of the people we are selecting. Realistic caution? Sure. But an expectation of corruption or pure selfishness?

That's the road to hysteria, a state that almost never leads to anything constructive, for ourselves or for our communities.

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