Disinterested citizens turn backs on local government

 
 
Updated 4/11/2011 6:31 AM
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  • The Maple Park Civic Center houses the village offices and the Maple Park Library. Both government bodies' boards need people to fill vacancies.

      The Maple Park Civic Center houses the village offices and the Maple Park Library. Both government bodies' boards need people to fill vacancies. Rick West | Staff Photographer

What if no one wants to step up and lead a town?

Or a library district, park district or fire district?

Governments throughout the suburbs are facing that problem after last Tuesday's election. Not only was voter turnout low, but in some places candidates didn't show up either.

Why?

"It is time-consuming; pay, if there is pay, it's lousy; and there is very little recognition," said Paul Green, political science professor at Roosevelt University and once a township supervisor.

Serving as alderman means spending time away from family to attend one or two meetings a week, and "there are people who call you the dreaded 'p' word -- politician," Green said. "Serving is a tremendous responsibility, including big spending decisions."

Compounding the problem is the large number of governments Illinois has, he said.

The example

Take Maple Park.

The small Kane County community (population 1,310) had three open positions on its village board, and the Maple Park Library District had three 6-year positions and two 2-year positions available in Tuesday's election. But only one person ran for village board, and nobody ran for the library posts.

That means on the six-member village board, one-third of its members will be appointed by the village president rather than selected by the people.

Village President Kathleen Curtis said five people have applied for the positions, which she advertised in local newspapers and on the village website as soon as she knew no one was running.

"Usually there are enough people who come forth (on the ballot) to do the work," she said. She and village trustees will interview the applicants, and she will appoint the two at the board's May meeting.

Curtis said the village skews to two groups: Senior citizens and young couples with children. When she approaches the younger folks, she tells them that they are the ones who will benefit from improvements the village is making.

But they tell her they are too busy to serve, often with both parents working outside the home. What free time they do have is spent volunteering for their children's activities, such as baseball leagues.

The issue is exacerbated by the size of the town, according to Curtis. Maple Park has only five employees and one is part time. That means trustees end up having to do some of the administrative work that would normally be handled by staff in larger towns.

Maple Park Library Director Kimberly Martin has begged -- on the library's Facebook page, in newspapers and in person for the last year -- to get replacements for a trustee who died and another who resigned due to illness.

"I think people are afraid it is a huge time commitment or that it might be difficult," Martin said. "Being responsible for decisions is intimidating."

The library district, while larger than the town, is still small.

"You just keep running into the same people over and over (volunteering for other groups). People get burned out," Martin said.

Open-office solution

Maple Park isn't alone in facing these problems.

• In nearby Big Rock, there are two board vacancies to be filled by appointment.

• Nobody wanted to be the Rolling Meadows city clerk.

• Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 -- which has 6,219 students -- will be short a trustee.

• The village boards in Burlington and Sleepy Hollow each will be short one trustee.

• The Big Rock, Burlington and Inverness park districts have two open chairs apiece. The South Barrington park board needs another person.

• The Dundee Township library board will be down one trustee. The Sugar Grove library board will be down two trustees. The Batavia library also finds itself one member short of a full board.

• The Hampshire Fire Protection District needs another person.

Green had one idea to solve the issue: Make it so you we need fewer officials by eliminating single-interest units of local government, such as library and mosquito abatement districts.

Instead, turn responsibility for their operations over to general-purpose governments like cities, townships and counties, he said.

Those officials are usually better compensated, which might attract more candidates, and you would need fewer of them, he said. The downside some see to that is that it consolidates power in fewer hands.

"The amazing thing in Illinois (with its thousands of governments) ... is that so many people are willing to do this, to serve their community," Green said.

"There should be a lot more respect for these people."