Democracy, in my experience, tends to consist of long periods of quiet routine punctuated by much noise and occasional voting. It’s like watching CSPAN for months then sometimes switching to All-Star Wrestling just to wake up and get the blood racing.
That’s the general pattern I’ve seen in the six communities where I’ve covered local government as a reporter on and off since 1985. When things are quiet, very few people show up at meetings unless a friend or relative is being honored or sworn in. When a controversial issue emerges, many people show up and make much noise, as they should.
The pattern is understandable, but I’ve long wondered whether it was really very healthy for the process of self-governance.
International Democracy Day is approaching (it’s Sept. 15) and the Chronicle has signed up to participate in a collaborative journalism project created by the Montclair State University Center for Cooperative Media.
I thought now would be a good time to give a shout-out to a neighbor who has an uncommon vision of the local democratic process and is making it come to life. He is promoting a third way between neglect and disruption: Show up all the time. Be a player in the game of democracy. Make it a habit.
Scott Kuzminski posted a few months ago on a social media platform, NextDoor, and recounted his first foray into South Holland village government. He went to a board meeting.
It was his first, and he found it interesting. However, he was disappointed with one aspect of the meeting: public attendance. There wasn’t much. He and one other person were the only non-public-officials in the room.
“I was saddened that we have such a large population, 21,000, and just two people were there to more or less represent the entire village,” he said.
He posted to NextDoor and invited other residents to join him at the July meeting.
“When I arrived I saw a full parking lot,” he said. “It was simply amazing, and people kept coming in. They had to keep bringing chairs in. An entire family with kids walked in and sat in the back. There were about 25 people there. A miracle!”
Kuzminski’s pitch to his community was simple: “We should all be aware of what is going on in our village.”
It’s worth noting that South Holland does not have its own newspaper to report on village board meetings. Even if it did, being there is a different experience than reading about it.
Kuzminski is urging South Holland residents to be informed about their government and help their representatives be informed about residents’ concerns. He said being there is “almost like live theater,” and described the feeling of being part of something. He noted that Mayor Don DeGraff greeted everyone who attended. People asked questions. They explained problems in their neighborhoods.
Coincidentally, I came across a Washington Post column by Aaron Landsman recently that expands on that notion.
He notes that if public officials are willing to give their sincere attention to constituents, and if constituents take some care to present a compelling story, local government might be more effective and better address the concerns of the people.
“Turning bureaucracy into theater freed our audience from their preconceived notions of the way local government works and made it easier for them to envision how to create effective change,” Landsman said.
Seeing citizenship as performance might seem a little risky. Some people might be tempted to ham it up a little too much, thereby disrupting the business of the meeting. On the other hand, when people see themselves as having a role to play, they have more reason to get on the stage.
Homewood School District 153 posted a Facebook notice on Aug. 10 lamenting the death of Carole Smith, calling her a “beloved former teacher, coach and colleague.”
She taught math and coached volleyball and softball at James Hart School before retiring in 2021. She was 69 when died on Aug. 7.
Her obituary noted that “Carole had a knack with providing a calm sanctuary for every student to feel their worth and celebrate every success no matter small or large. She was a pillar of James Hart’s mission that every student will learn and be served.”
Chronicle editor Marilyn Thomas recalled that Mrs. Smith also coached girls volleyball teams for St. Joe’s Athletic Association. She also was a regular volunteer at the annual St. Joe Lenten Fish Fry.
The news industry lost a pioneer on Aug. 9 when Russ Bensley of Flossmoor died at age 92.
Mr. Bensley was a reporter for CBS when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and he made his national news television with “man on the street” interviews in reaction to the momentous event.
He later served as executive producer for “The CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite. In 1968, he was injured covering the Viet Nam war.
In addition to the Chronicle story based on his obituary, learn more about him in former Chronicle editor Tom Houlihan’s column from several years ago.
Levi Glass Jr.
Village officials in Homewood noted the death of a Levi Glass Jr. on Aug. 9. He was 71.
He served as a U.S. Probation and Pretrial Officer from 1980-2007. After retiring, he taught at Governors State University and was a member of Homewood’s Police and Fire Commission.
I met Mr. Glass several times when he stopped by to chat with Mayor Rich Hofeld. I didn’t know him well, but he seemed like a quiet, genial, kind man.