Many years ago, several elections ago, the Cook County Coalition of Lake Associations held a candidate forum. There were many hard-hitting questions about property taxes and protecting water quality and so on. But the question that sticks in my mind from that long ago Q&A session was—who pays for the coffee and treats consumed at county board meetings?
There was a round of laughter when the question was asked, but it was obvious that people— voters—wanted to know. What government fund was used to purchase the coffee? How much was allocated to cookies and donuts each year? Was this an acceptable use of our tax dollars?
The audience seemed pleased to hear that the commissioners themselves provide the goodies shared during the midmorning break. There is a schedule and they all take turns bringing a treat. In fact, they not only bring enough for their board colleagues, they bring extra for county staff and citizens— and members of the press—in attendance. I’ve been fortunate over the years to sample some tasty treats prepared by local politicians. My favorite treat is the rum cake made by former Commissioner Walt Mianowski.
And the coffee itself? That is paid for by donations from the commissioners and county staff as well. No tax dollars wasted on coffee.
However, I don’t think money spent on coffee would be a total waste of county funds. I know, people who know me will be quick to say that I am addicted to coffee, so of course I would be supportive of the government providing coffee. But there is more to it than that.
The idea came up recently in a meeting I had with some Blandin Foundation Community Leadership participants. I was meeting with them to talk about our shared experience with the leadership training. They were taking part in the traditional Blandin leadership program and I was in the midst of the Editors & Publishers program. We were comparing notes and talking about the topic they have chosen to work on—building government trust.
I shared some of the things we are considering at the paper, such as the yet-to-happen “Coffee with the News-Herald.” As I explained that I would like to get together with readers now and then to chat over a cup of coffee, there was laughter. One of the Blandin participants said, “I see a theme here!”
Apparently one of the group working to build trust in government had suggested that the county offer coffee to taxpayers waiting for help. One of their group liked the idea of a little coffee station in the lobby of the planning & zoning office or the assessor’s office—like those at the car dealership or fancy hair salon. She suggested that a beverage—it didn’t have to be coffee, it could be a nice rooibos tea or even a cooler filled with refreshing water—would go a long way to soothing an irritated soul.
It brought to mind the book by Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, about Mortenson’s accidental foray into humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although his story was questioned as exaggerated and his charity challenged in 2011, it is clear that Mortenson’s nonprofit, Central Asia Institute, has built and helped operate some schools—and it continues to do so. So despite the cloud of uncertainty surrounding his story, Mortenson is doing good works.
And what good Mortenson has accomplished started with Three Cups of Tea. The book title comes from a proverb of a Tibetan/Pakistani ethnic group, the Balti: “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family…”
I know, it would be complicated to have a coffeemaker and hot water and tea bags and containers of water scattered around the courthouse. It would be an additional task for a county staffer who already has enough to worry about. No one has time to sit and drink three cups of tea before conducting government business.
But it’s a nice thought. It’s good to see leaders thinking of ways they can build trust, even if it is with something as simple as providing coffee or orange pekoe to visitors. It’s a start.
There is no trouble so great or
grave that cannot be much
diminished by a nice cup of tea.