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Akst: Let’s avoid self-fulfilling prophecies

Published: Friday, March 1, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

I haven’t met Carl Leoni, but 33 years in law enforcement should endow him with something that above all else might foster success at his new job: A thick skin.

Leoni retired from the DeKalb Police Department in February to become the city’s first crime-free housing and inspections coordinator. The DeKalb City Council created this position in October as part of a plan to implement new housing rules intended to make rental housing safer and better.

So as he begins his new job, the Daily Chronicle on Feb. 13 appropriately published a relatively upbeat news/feature story about this transition.

The story met with a slew of negativity from commenters online. Allegations of Marxism, socialism, cronyism, class warfare, social engineering, pension padding, general corruption and hopeless incompetence were hurled.

So, Leoni had a very short honeymoon, considering the city is still searching for a clerk and three part-time inspectors for the new program.

As you know, the incidence and visibility of crime tangential to DeKalb rental housing has increased. DeKalb is a college town, so the rental housing market is a critical sector of the local economy.

Having a situation, or even a perception of one, where the city is unsafe and the quality of rental housing is poor is an enormous problem.

A couple of years ago, the Safe/Quality Housing Task Force was formed to study the problem and recommend strategies. The city (a key constituency of the task force) began considering ordinances that, as Daily Chronicle reporter David Thomas wrote last year, seemed to “fall under four broad categories: criminal activity, chronic nuisances, registration/licensing and rental property inspections.”

Eventually a compromise emerged that resulted in the position Leoni now holds.

The surest path to failure is to try to please everybody, so it’s fine that there’s doubt that the city, the DeKalb Area Rental Association and the task force are approaching the problems in the best ways possible.

I teach at Northern Illinois University (NIU personnel are also on the task force) and routinely hear renters’ horror stories. I take such stories with a grain of salt, but I’m concerned about the situation, for obvious reasons and because of something personal.

Most of my working life has gone well. I’m not a wunderkind, but I have a strong work ethic, some skills, I hardly ever call in sick, and I have a good sense of humor. Despite my famous mouth, favorable reviews and upward mobility have been the norm.

But two previous jobs haunt me. In those cases, I experienced failure after failure, crisis after crisis, bad review after bad review. I still sometimes obsess about them, which is ridiculous.

The honest thing is just to man up and say I didn’t have the skills or psyche at the time to do the jobs well. That’s probably at least half of what went wrong … which leaves a giant percentage I can’t account for, but my suspicion is that the dysfunctionality and politics of both organizations set me up to fail.

That’s my problem, but neither of those jobs was nearly as important to me as the crime-free housing and inspections coordinator is to the community.

As a community, even if we disagree about the tactics and the rationale, it’s in everyone’s best interest to avoid setting anyone up to fail.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at

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