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Becoming a commissioner

A bit of background first...I live in a town in the Chicago region of about 50,000 that is "home rule." In IL, that means that our village is largely left to govern ourselves without interference from Springfield. We're free to choose our form of government, tax, make laws, the whole thing.

The way we actually go about that is...unique. We're a council-manager form of government which means we have an elected village president for an elected village board--they then hire a village manager to run the day-to-day operations of the town. So all of our police, fire, engineering, health inspections, meter enforcement, garbage collection, etc. is run by departments where the boss is a hired professional supervisor chosen by our elected officials from a pool of candidates.

Still with me? This is where it starts to get really complicated.

The elected trustees then have the job of setting policy, approving ordinances, and directing staff to implement changes and procedure. The way we choose to go about that is via about 20 committees of appointed volunteers who serve based on subject matter. (Health, disability access, codes, design, transportation, farmer's market, housing, liquor, etc.) Those commissions meet to decide on most matters under their "topic" then report recommendations to the village board.

The village board certainly has the right to pull commission items into regular board discussions. They can choose to not approve a commission's recommendation. But...often?...frequently?...the trustees consent to the recommendations of the commissions. It's tough to keep all the crazy amount of spots filled since there are usually between 5-7 commissioners on each committee.

Which brings us to present. I'm in the process of possibly filling a vacant seat on the Transportation Commission. That covers parking regulations, bicycling, pedestrian safety, traffic policy, etc.. At a recent meeting the topics included a preschool who wanted to reserve 3 staff spaces on a street already crowded with parking, making a section of a local street closed to truck traffic, and planning to study 3 parking zones in anticipation of future development in the neighborhood. Sometimes it's bike lanes. Sometimes it's speed bumps or crosswalks. It's the same commission where the Right Turn Only restrictions at our intersection have become a project to build a traffic light. That process has taken 2 years.

So let's say you want to get one of these spots...here's what you do. At Village Hall there is an application to fill out where you select 2-3 commissions you'd be interested in serving on. Then you meet with a commission that interviews you. That's right--we have a commission that decides whether you get on a commission! Sort of. The involvement commission discusses your first and second choice with you and tries to guide you to where there are openings and what matches your interest, qualifications, the like. If they like you, you must attend a meeting of your potential commission and chat with both the chairperson and the staff liaison for that committee to make sure it's a good fit.

If all goes well, your name gets submitted to the village board for approval and you are formally on the commission. That's where I'm at now is waiting to be officially appointed. If all this sounds a bit nuts...it is. Keep in mind that on top of this all being volunteer-based, we're a town that likes to have opinions. On everything. A few weeks ago, a whole slate of candidates for commissions was tabled by the board because the village president tried to nominate a candidate that did not go through the process I described above. And, with multiple taxing bodies (village, 2 school districts, park district, library, township), there is always plenty to bicker over.

It makes it an interesting place to live. And frustrating. Participation is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's great to get people involved in the community. On the other, public service is a thankless job. It can be difficult to build consensus and people have expectations sometimes far from what can reasonably be done. We're trying to streamline and improve all the time, but that doesn't mean that government isn't clunky and it isn't difficult to balance conflicting needs.

I think that's at the heart of a lot of our political discontent these days. Some people would look at it and say "to hell with it" because it's overly complicated, inefficient, and sometimes unnecessary. Some people would look at all this and say it's great to see so many protected layers of democratic process relying on involved citizens to keep everything moving.

I'll let you know in 3 years when my term as commissioner is over what I think. My guess is something in the middle..important yet frustrating? Powerful and boring? For now, I better go brush up on my rules of order.




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