WJBC Voices: Respect for citizen volunteers

By Mike Matejka

This past few months, I’ve witnessed over 30 hours of McLean County Zoning Board of Appeals hearings. Two wind farms and a solar project have both taken repeated and extended hearings, as the proponents submitted hours of expert testimony and the public was given a chance to speak or to interrogate.

I want to give the Zoning board members great credit.  Their roles and procedures are very strict.  It is very much a legal hearing and the rules are scrupulously adhered to.   At the same time, the board members have been more than open to allow citizen input.   Personally, my head nodded off more than once during those long hours, but the board members stayed engaged, listened attentively and made people feel valued in the process.

The Zoning Board, like much of our local government, is made up on citizen volunteers.  The County, Bloomington and Normal all have multiple commissions and boards.  There is no salary for these; maybe there is a once-a-year invitation to an appreciation event.  Otherwise, the boards serve the public and come from the public.  Plus, our county board members, city and town council members, are mostly volunteers.  They do get a small salary, but if you divided that by the hours served, it would be lucky to equal minimum wage.

It’s great we have that level of citizen volunteers in local government.  What disturbs me is how many of them are being treated.  Almost any council member, county board member, elected or appointed official will tell you they welcome open debate.  They are very ready to listen, weigh viewpoints, and share counter-views with what they’ve learned from multiple sources and their own experience.

Sadly, in this day of social media, sharing a viewpoint is not enough.  The ugly statements made on Facebook and other venues about elected and appointed officials are often over the top.  Disagree on issues all you want, but name-calling is not appropriate.

I recently sat down with a local elected official.  This individual is thorough, thoughtful and does an outstanding job.  But this person was considering not running again, because of the callous and ugly statements and accusations made on social media.

Running for office and public service means growing a tough skin.  At the same time, there is a rampant distrust of any government person, even a local volunteer, that seems to allow free rein for any accusation and unfounded allegation.   We have a good thing going in McLean County with our local governance being a citizen volunteer effort.  Let’s not ruin it with inappropriate comments and allegations.

Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.

The opinions expressed within WJBC’s Voices are solely those of the Voices’ author, and are not necessarily those of WJBC or Cumulus Media, Inc.


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