Editorial: Don't overlook value of conferences, but manage the costs

  • Public officials from around the state, including more than 150 from the suburbs, learned about complex technical topics -- and spent nearly $120,000 in taxpayer money -- at a conference at the Hilton Chicago hotel.

      Public officials from around the state, including more than 150 from the suburbs, learned about complex technical topics -- and spent nearly $120,000 in taxpayer money -- at a conference at the Hilton Chicago hotel. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted12/13/2017 6:30 PM

When discussing the participation of elected officials and public administrators at workshops and conferences, it is important to acknowledge the words of Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole: "This is an easy target."

It is. That doesn't mean it's not a valid one, however. The trick, both for officials who participate in such conferences and for the public evaluating their behavior, is to keep the issue in perspective.

 

Professional development is a fundamental activity of most successful businesses, and it certainly has value for leaders of schools and municipal governments, who face all kinds of complex legal, social and educational challenges and can benefit from the information shared by their colleagues from other districts and by experts in specific technical topics.

But that said, when you look closely at the actions of some municipalities and some leaders, as our Jake Griffin has done in two "On Your Dime" reports so far on participation at a local Municipal League conference in downtown Chicago, you quickly see why taxpayers would be concerned.

Smith & Wollensky Chateaubriand, high-priced alcoholic drinks, big-ticket valet parking tabs, $300-a-night luxury hotel bills for officials who live within easy driving distance ... Easy targets, to be sure, but just as surely understandable ones. And when districts send large numbers to a conference -- like Round Lake Heights (seven elected officials), Addison (six elected officials), Hanover Park (nine elected officials and staff) and others -- it becomes ever harder to conjure the image of cost-conscious community servants studying their craft and easier to grimace at the thought of officials enjoying the perks of a political junket at the public's expense.

"Our municipality has zero debt. The reason we have zero debt is because of the things we've learned at these conferences," said Round Lake Heights Mayor Terry Lumpkins.

That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but we're willing to acknowledge some connection. What is harder to accept is why communities should have to send so many representatives or spend so much to earn such benefits. Can conference attendees, for example, not be expected to collect information and report back to their colleagues? Ought there not be some more specific method for detailing to the public just how attendance at a conference benefited the community?

In short, it would likely be narrow and misguided to dissuade public officials from taking opportunities to improve their knowledge and leadership skills. But clearly, many communities still have far to go to show how their activities amount to true professional development and not just a taxpayer-funded night on the town.

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