Back when I used to toil for the papers and Patch, on occasion, we’d discuss a malady known as “The Municipal Mindset.” It’s a disease that primarily afflicts city councils and the symptoms always start with statements like, “We have to bring this fee in line with other municipalities,” or “We’re losing money to the Internet.”
Basically, it’s an affliction in which mayors and aldermen start believing they’re entitled to our money by sheer virtue of the fact they’re breathing.
But as bad as the Municipal Mindset is, there’s another ailment that’s far worse – the “Edifice Complex” – also known as “Compulsive Legacy Building.” Thankfully, it tends to affect only long-serving mayors in small to medium cities with the occasional four term alderman thrown in for good measure.
Please note that, the use of the word “edifice,” doesn’t necessarily mean the illness has to involve buildings. It can be a concept, an initiative, or some other kind of grand scheme. But the one thing you can count on is, the longer they serve, the worse it gets.
If you don’t believe me, then all I ask you is to turn your piercing gaze towards two central Kane County towns. The first is Batavia where Mayor Jeff Schielke is well into his ninth term, and then there’s Geneva, where Mayor Kevin Burns is currently working on his fourth.
And both of these municipalities fell for the Peabody Energy Co. sales pitch by buying into the Prairie State Energy Campus under the guise of the Northern Illinois Municipal Energy Association. It’s a very long story that we’ve already covered here, the end result of which is, while most folks are paying about 50 bucks a megawatt hour, Genevans and Batavians are shelling out $70.00.
In an almost perfect correlation to the length of their mayoral tenures, both cities bought into this scheme to varying degrees. So while Genevans are certainly feeling the power pinch, Batavia felt the need to dip into their electrical reserves, implement a sales tax hike, and raise their electrical rates by 6.5 percent both this year and next.
But one Batavian decided to strike back! Fed up with his $1,000 electric bills, like a Jedi knight giving the Empire what for, businessman Joe Marconi just filed a class action lawsuit against the consultants who told our two cities this southern Illinois coal plant was the best thing since sliced bread.
And he may be onto something here because one of those “experts” subsequently went on to become the chairman of the Prairie State Generating management committee. No conflict there!
But while I love Joe’s chutzpah and can’t wait until the up-to-now confidential contracts come out in discovery, he inexplicably let the City of Batavia off the hook. Both Geneva and Batavia are only listed as respondents in the suit.
Of the Batavia City Council, Marconi said, “They were misled,” while another Batavia resident, who’s gone over Prairie State with a fine tooth comb added, “I don’t think our cities did anything bad. I think they got snookered.”
Wait a minute – not so fast!
If Peabody’s pitch was so irresistible, why were Geneva and Batavia the only two Kane County towns foolish enough to sign on? Should it be any surprise that it involves two of the longest serving mayors?
So what we really have here are two mayors who thought they could bolster their legacy by beating the market. The problem with that theory is, if any mayor (or city council) really could beat the market, then trust me, they wouldn’t be wasting their time at city hall.
With visions of constituents carrying them down Route 31 on their shoulders for their foresight, instead of paying heed to the general municipal movement towards electrical aggregation, these guys decided to go it alone and convince their respective aldermen to sign onto a long term power deal that hasn’t turned out too well.
But there is a remedy.
What all of the affected towns really oughtta be doing is, admit they were wrong, band together, and do their damndest to get out of this “deal” based on a litany of misrepresentations, not the least of which is selling all but 5 percent of the risk after Peabody promised to retain a majority stake in the project.
But not only are Burns and Schielke letting Mr. Marconi do all the heavy lifting, they’re actually defending this indefensible boondoggle!
Just like it was with so many Bernie Madoff clients, they don’t want to have to admit they were suckered because that would severely damage their legacy. And, of course, their reputations are far more important than their citizens’ fiscal health.
The lesson here goes far beyond this tale of two cities. This is why, with the exception of larger municipalities with all their checks and balances, no mayor should serve for more than 12 years. If you can’t get it done in a decade, then it’s time to hand the baton to someone else.
And the great thing is, we don’t need term limits to ensure that the Edifice Complex doesn’t have time to take hold either. All you have to do is vote ‘em out.