Sworn in as Geneva mayor, Burns warns of standing up to ‘era of rising acrimony’

Burns calls on public officials to stand up to threats, accusations, dog whistles

GENEVA – After Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns was sworn in May 3 for his 21st year as the city’s mayor, he spoke of the changes in the city’s 186-year history and the challenges of serving “in an era of rising acrimony both online and in person.”

First, Burns described how the City Hall building has changed. He said in the past, it not only housed city offices, but was the cultural seat, offering live performances and balcony seating.

Then he spoke of public officials facing threats, accusations and dog whistles, piling up on social media and seeking validation by the number of likes and shares.

“Moments ago, we completed the solemn exercise of taking our oath of office to serve Geneva to the best of our ability,” Burns said. “You have my unequivocal commitment to serve to the best of my ability, regardless of political consequences. It’s worth noting that the oath of office we all just repeated, all 65 words, is void of the word ‘unless’ and void of the word ‘until.’ ”

Burns said the oath means public officials do not swear to do their best – unless the pressure becomes so intense that they do what is expedient, and not until they can find a way to avoid controversy and contention.

“There is no doubt – and I know that all of you will agree – that we serve in an era of rising acrimony both online and in person. When threats, accusations or intimidation are sown, we must do all we can to prevent those seeds from taking root,” Burns said. “And when dog whistles are sounded, we must not be reticent. We must respond with sirens of actualities and veracity. To do anything less is to be complicit. And being complicit degrades the offices we hold, the body we represent and the community we serve.”

The concept is named for a high-frequency whistle that only dogs can hear. In politics, a dog whistle is coded language that appears normal but is intended for a particular group without provoking opposition.

Burns said as Geneva continues to mature, it must face its imperfections and pursue what it aspires to be.

“In a world where tweets, Instagram posts or Facebook discourse is substituted for thoughtful, respectful and civil and factual debate, we, as elected officials, must not be provoked to take action prematurely as a means of satisfying the loudest voices, nor be seduced into thinking the amount of shares or likes somehow fortifies such commentary as a pervasive and binding creed,” Burns said.

“Instead, we must affirm our fidelities to our oath of office that we took tonight and consider each and every issue that may come before us objectively and refrain from taking a position on items until they are fully vetted by the city’s advisory commissions, committees and boards,” Burns said.

“It’s not easy,” Burns said. “I know.”

In an emotional moment, Burns said he wished his father could have joined him on this night.

“I hope he’s proud of his youngest son,” he said.

His mother, three daughters, grandchildren and girlfriend joined Burns for the oath of office, which was administered by Kane County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Flood. The judge also delivered the oath of office to the five aldermen who were elected April 6.