The June County Board meeting was the 7th County Board meeting I’ve sat on, and marks 6 months on the job. Cliche as it may sound, that went by really fast. I think my head has finally stopped spinning, but I’m not quite sure.
When people find out that I’m a county politician they immediately ask, “So what do you actually do?” And for the first six months I’ve stumbled through some canned answers but I usually end up saying that I attend a lot of meetings, vote on how to spend tax money, and I’m just learning a lot of stuff. That’s a pretty generic response, I know. I haven’t come up with a perfect "elevator-pitch" answer yet, but let me give you a little sketch of what my experience has been like so far.
At the beginning, Day One, it was very overwhelming. They don’t really tell you anything, there’s no orientation, but they do tell you to make sure to check your mailbox. You don’t get an actual office for this position, and you certainly don’t get an office budget (or even some kind of small fund for getting things done in your community).
The Week 1 mailbox package was a huge collection of documents (pictured right) such as the County Budget, FOIA and Open Meetings Act briefings, rules and regulations, etc. I joked on Facebook that I had my homework cut out for me, and it’s true!
Meetings and emails. Lots of emails.
This is a job where you really can put as much or as little into it as you like. We each get assigned to various committees, so we’re only expected to go to the Forest Preserve & County Board meetings (held on the same day), and then our appointed committee meetings each month. That’s all we’re obligated to do.
I go to as many meetings as possible but it is difficult to make them all. The job pays about $25k/yr so you can’t live on it, which means you have to have a flexible job outside of the office. Some of us work full time or more and have to fit county business into our schedule. Or some of us live close to Geneva and can easily stop in. So you see different levels of involvement and activity from each board member.
You get emails constantly during the week. There’s always agenda packets and minutes for all of the committees and subcommittees, then you get email from various staff with updates and notifications. And depending on what committees you’re on, you’ll get emails from organizations in the field.
And of course, you get emails from residents about any issue they are for or against, such as the Maxxam drug rehab facility, or the Longmeadow Parkway project. Ideally, every board member is able to do their “due diligence” on each issue that comes before us. I’ve spent many hours talking to residents, helping them get answers and solve problems, and learning more about their causes.
You’re also invited to a lot of different events and meetings and dinners and golf outings and fundraisers and leadership trainings and more. There are many organizations for people in county government (such as the UCCI) that provide trainings and these can be good ways to expand subject knowledge, network, and stay informed on higher level politics.
So again it comes down to how much time you can devote to it and what kinds of things you’d like to do. While the pay doesn’t increase, you can easily make this a full-time job!
All of these opportunities help to make us more aware of the ideas and projects going on at the county level so that we can make better, more informed decisions as representatives of our districts and become better leaders of our peers. At times it can feel like you’re drowning in information and emails, but you eventually start to develop a "map" with some solid outlines and familiar landmarks. This is a whole world that most people don't get to see.
I didn’t even get into our relationship with county staff in this article, but they are really the key to everything we do. Each department is working on various goals in relation to the county’s overall goals (as outlined in our Kane 2040 Plan), and they bring forth updates, presentations, and resolutions for approval to each committee meeting. They keep things running and propose ideas for county improvement.
When we need answers on something, our first move is typically to talk to the department staff that handle that particular issue. I think we’re blessed with a really strong staff in Kane County!!!
So that is a peak behind the curtain of county level local government. I know, nothing sneaky or scandalous, no envelopes full of cash and a nod to vote a certain way. Local politics may have some of that at times but what you're really going to see is a lot of different people from different backgrounds, mostly in it for the right reasons and trying to do some good for their constituents as they see it.
It may seem boring and unimportant to some people, but local government has more of an impact on your life than the stuff you see on the news, and the reverse is that you can have more of an impact on government at this level than you can at the national level! Do you want to start to figure out what really is going on in Washington? Then you have to learn the ropes locally and work your way up. Once you get familiar with this level of government, you can more easily understand and make sense of another, higher level. The way some people follow sports, other people follow politics, keep that in mind.
So for now when people ask me what I actually do, I’ll just keep saying that I attend a lot of meetings, I vote on how to spend your tax money, and I'm just learning a lot...but as you can see it is hard to truly encapsulate all that we do. And that isn't even including the more activist-minded things I want to do in our community like improving our health and fitness, enabling more access to local food and healthy recipes, and providing free information for residents to learn more about the political process and how to be effectively involved.
What are your thoughts? Leave them in the comments below.
If any of you have any advice to give me on how to best raise funds for non-election/campaign needs then I would love to sit down with you. I picture being able to pay canvassers to go out and talk to residents, deliver them simple flyers informing them of who I am and how to engage with the county and the village. Also, providing information (mostly online) that teaches them more about the political process and how they can get involved. My constituents are my eyes, my ears, my teachers. Their collective wisdom could one day be collected and delivered to me as a snapshot of what the people truly want/think which can better inform how I vote. I know, big dreaming….