Concerns about citizen Public Safety Commission

July 1, 1993

Concerns about citizen Public Safety Commission

By Jeff Havens, Staff Writer

Winnebago County officials are seeking 20 citizens to serve on a Public Safety Commission,” according to Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli. The commission will make recommendations to county officials on how the impending 1 percent increase in local sales tax should be spent.

When the group will have its first meeting is unknown, as are the total number of meetings and the duration of the commission. Logli did indicate that the commission’s role is to “influence” county officials. However, concerns should be raised about the proposed commission’s nature and size.

The Winnebago County Justice System Master Planning Committee, which met in 2000 and 2001, was the same size as the proposed commission, but was nearly all county officials and a jail consultant. Ultimately, out of the 20 members on the committee, the jail consultant, Mark Goldman’s recommendation weighed most heavily, and the committee decided on a 1,200-bed jail.

However, that 1,200-bed recommendation was scaled back by county officials to 976 beds after citizens expressed concerns about its size and cost. In addition, The Rock River Times (TRRT) research recommended a generously sized 586-bed jail, with the majority or greater of the tax increase going towards the alternatives to jail to alleviate jail overcrowding and help reduce crime rates.

To make high-quality recommendations, the proposed commission has several daunting obstacles to overcome, according to group theory and group skills experts:

1. The size of the proposed 20-citizen commission.

To achieve the highest quality recommendations, consensus must be achieved. According to group experts David W. Johnson and Frank P. Johnson, who co-authored the highly utilized and acclaimed book Joining Together: “The majority of effective teams have less than ten members …. Ten people are far more likely than fifty to work through their differences and … hold themselves individually accountable.” The smaller the group, the greater the chance of achieving consensus.

2. The level of expertise and skills of commission members.

“No team succeeds without all the expertise and skills needed to meet its purpose and goals,” the authors said. This means that commission members must bring to the group knowledge of many alternatives to building a large new jail, and not be solely reliant on county officials for information and data to formulate their decisions. 3. The level of controversy within the commission.

According to the authors: “Without controversy, group decisions may always be less than optimal. Controversy promotes high productivity, positive interpersonal relationships, psychological health and social competence.”

“Difference of opinion leads to inquiry, and inquiry to truth” said President Thomas Jefferson.

The concern about the proposed commission is that it will not have enough differences in opinion or will acquire “groupthink.” The phenomenon of groupthink, where members seek concurrence at the expense of effective group decision-making, led to the catastrophic escalation of the Vietnam War despite warnings from government intelligence experts and allies.

Documentation also indicates that a lack of controversy, within groups of decision-makers, led to the tragic flight of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster. Therefore, controversy and avoidance of groupthink must be integral parts of the commission if it is to be a success.

4. Commitment level of county officials to implement the commission’s recommendations. Johnson and Johnson wrote: “Not inducing commitment in the implementers is almost always the problem that stymies teams that recommend things. Involving the implementers (county officials) in the process early and often is an effective strategy.” In this way, commission members will be assured that they are not wasting their time formulating high-quality recommendations only to have them disregarded by county officials.

Logli’s statement that the commission’s role is to “influence” suggests a low level of commitment by county officials to implement the citizen commission’s recommendations. However, Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers has been quick to point out that the county lowered its jail bed proposal from 1,200 beds to 976 beds in response to citizen concern earlier this fall. Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn echoed this willingness to respond to the citizens by pledging to keep citizens involved in deciding how the tax increase will be spent.

5. The qualifications of the facilitator for the commission.

The facilitator of the group should be certified as a facilitator and have an education and background in behavioral science with heavy emphasis on interpersonal relationships and group dynamics. But, “No matter how much training a person has as a facilitator, if he or she is not self-aware and self-understanding, the person will not be able to resist indulging his or her own personal needs for such things as power and positive responses from commission members,” according to the authors. Therefore, the quality of the facilitator for the commission will directly affect the quality of the commission’s recommendations. Specifically, should a poorly qualified facilitator lead the commission, the resulting recommendations will likely reflect the facilitator’s wishes rather than the commission’s.

To apply to serve on the Public Safety Citizen Commission, contact: Winnebago Co. State’s Attorney Paul Logli, 400 W. State St., Rockford, IL. 61101, (815) 987-3160; Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers, 420 W. State St., Rockford, IL. 61101, (815) 987-5920; Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn, 404 Elm St., Rockford, IL. 61101, (815) 987-2950; Winnebago Co. Board member Mary Ann Aiello (R-8), 521 Renrose Ave., Loves Park, IL; (815) 877-6833.

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