This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.
When I was a kid, democracy was so normal and unassailable as to merit no more consideration than the air we breathed or the water we drank. Autocratic alternatives were nightmares that only afflicted people elsewhere and were regrettable. Of course, none of those things — air, water or democracy — were as eternal and safe as I assumed.
Nowadays, democracy advocates are and have been sounding the alarm about the state of democracy in the U.S., and the attempt to thwart the results of the 2020 presidential election indicates we have entered a crisis stage.
Now, we have to pay attention to and actively support democracy. We can’t assume it will just keep chugging along and that we have only to vote periodically and call it good.
On Sept. 7, 13 presidential foundations and centers, from Hoover through Obama (with the exception of Eisenhower) issued a statement urging Americans to recommit to the principles of democracy.
That the leaders of those organizations felt the need to take a stand suggests the advocates are not alone in worrying about the future of democracy in our country.
Last year, the Chronicle participated in Democracy Day, an observance sponsored by the Collaborative Journalism program at Montclair University. Seeing the work other news organizations around the country were doing to direct attention to the state of democracy locally, regionally and nationally inspired us to start paying more attention to how well we’re doing in our area.
In the year since, we’ve included a “Democracy Watch” section in most editions of our weekly newsletter, The Weeks. We generally focus on examples of local democracy because that’s the most immediate and most important to us; it’s democracy that affects us and it’s what we can help shape.
Our definition of democracy: The regular working partnership between local government elected officials, staff and residents in the operation of our community and support for our people.
Below are selections from our Democracy Watch observations over the past year. The dates refer to when the edition of The Weeks was published. These are examples of what I noticed. What have you noticed and experienced? We’re very interested in your views on local democracy and how it’s working, how it can be improved. How accessible are local officials? How easy is it to find answers to questions or responses to problems? Do you have suggestions for how to make things work better? Do you have stories about things working well?
Let us know what you think. Click here to share your views.
The best of Democracy Watch 2022-23
Sept. 4, 2022
Quote of the week
“Democracy is not what governments do; it’s what people do.”
— Rep. Eric Liu of California
In my Page 2 column for September, we took a look at local government meetings, a regular opportunity to stay informed and get involved in issues that matter to everyone in a community. But meetings aren’t for everyone, or at least not all the time. Sometimes the business on the agenda is pretty routine and hard to get excited about, even if it is important in its own way. Sometimes the timing is not good. Meetings have to compete with family life, date nights, big games on TV and other much cooler diversions.
There are other ways to get in the game: Talk with elected officials outside official meetings.
I’ve encountered some elected officials who proclaim “My door is always open. Just make an appointment with my secretary.” Gee, thanks.
Fortunately, Homewood and Flossmoor residents have elected officials who are more accessible than that.
Homewood Mayor Rich Hofeld holds his “Meet the Mayor” office hours in the lobby of village hall every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. The sessions are advertised every week in the village’s email newsletter. Usually, a member of the village’s staff will be on hand, too, to answer residents’ questions and hear about their concerns.
I stop by most Saturdays to see what’s going on, ask questions and meet new people. I’m not alone. Every Saturday residents and other visitors (county, state and federal elected officials have a standing invitation and occasionally stop by) come with their concerns or, sometimes, just to thank village officials for the work they do.
Sometimes they bring problems in their neighborhood that they want the village to address. Sometimes they take issue with a village policy or something the village did or didn’t do. Sometimes they bring ideas for how to solve problems or for a new business they would like to start.
Everyone who walks in the door gets a chance to have a say.
Flossmoor Mayor Michelle Nelson doesn’t currently have a regular session like Homewood’s, but she stops by Homewood village hall with some regularity and has admired the format. She hosted a weekly “Meet the Mayor” on Fridays last year, but she said the timing might not have been ideal and she’s rethinking how to adjust so more people can attend.
“What has worked better for me in terms of engagement is regularly attending local HOA and civic association meetings, school and community/neighborhood events and having an active online presence,” she said. “Instead of having folks come to me, being present in many different forums seems to work better. I also regularly have residents contact me to discuss specific situations, and you can see me walking through the neighborhoods or grabbing ‘coffee’ with folks throughout the week at Dunning’s or Starbucks.”
Homewood Trustee Jay Heiferman also makes himself available regularly to talk with residents about anything on their minds. He hosts a listening session at the Starbucks at 18051 Harwood Ave. from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. the first Monday of every month.
Sept. 11, 2022
Quote of the week
“If you have a plan, we want to hear it. Tell your community leaders, your local officials, your governor, and your team in Washington. Believe me, your ideas count. An individual can make a difference.”
— President George H.W. Bush
Cynicism about politicians is practically a national pastime in the U.S. There are plenty of examples from throughout history right up until last week that can justify distrust in corrupt and/or ineffectual elected officials.
That’s why it seems important to point out when local officials do right. Homewood and Flossmoor elected officials aren’t perfect, and no decision in the long history of decision-making has ever satisfied everyone, but there are three cases I want to highlight that illustrate how officials worked with constituents to shape policy and practice effectively.
In Flossmoor earlier this year, residents asked the Board of Trustees to reconsider the village’s ban on above-ground swimming pools. They conducted a petition to show they had support, then presented the suggestion to the board.
Pool advocates and opponents presented their views to the board at meetings. Trustees talked to residents outside meetings, too, learning residents views pro and con. Village staff drafted a sample ordinance so there would be something more tangible to consider.
After about two months of consideration, the board members all weighed in on their conclusions. It was clear the prevailing opinion in the community and on the board was not in favor of the change, but Trustee Gary Daggett made a motion anyway so the issue would be part of the board’s official actions. The motion died for lack of second.
Certainly not everyone was happy with the result, but residents were given opportunities to be heard, the board considered the matter carefully and made a decision that seemed to reflect the will of the people.
In Homewood, there are two recent issues that have worked well.
One is similar to the Flossmoor pool situation. After a fatal crash at the intersection of Center Avenue and 183rd Street in July 2020, a resident started an online petition insisting that something be done about speeding and other safety issues on the main thoroughfare. The petition got thousands of signatures.
Homewood officials responded within a few weeks with steps that were feasible in the short term and aimed at starting the process. Traffic delineators were installed in an attempt to block risky turns at the tricky intersection. Several parkway trees were removed to improve visibility of oncoming traffic.
Another easy option was implemented. Delineators were added to the center line of 183rd Street at Park Avenue to prevent dangerous turns eastbound from southbound Park.
Then the village commissioned a study to learn about traffic patterns, accident patterns and possible solutions to safety problems.
The traffic study was presented to the public at a board meeting where there was a lively discussion about the options presented in the study. Residents offered their views of the study and made suggestions of their own.
In May 2021, the village did a test of a traffic diet approach that would reduce the traffic lanes from four to two. Village officials met with residents along 183rd Street several times to get their views on various options.
It appears the test was a success. The village subsequently obtained a grant that will cover most of the costs of implementing the traffic diet approach from Morgan Street west to Dixie Highway.
Residents asked. The village responded. Residents and officials worked together throughout the process to come up with solutions that would work and would have acceptable costs.
Sept. 25, 2022
Every day is Democracy Day
Technically, International Democracy Day was Sept. 15. Democracy Day is useful in drawing attention to something that needs attention. But one day is not nearly enough. If we ever learn to do democracy right, it’ll be because we prioritize it all the time and, most importantly, keep working at it.
One of my favorite articles contributed to the Montclair State University Collaborative Journalism Democracy Day project was “American Democracy doesn’t need saving — it needs creating.” It includes approaches designed to include people in governing processes, like budgeting and community project development.
The distrust and disgust with government is often rooted in the feeling people have that government is something being done to them, not something they get to help do.
The article also includes a section on “public-powered journalism.” I’d be interested in hearing what folks think about that. Give me a shout.
Nov. 13, 2022
Quote of the week:
“Maybe today would be a good day to do something we rarely do: thank the people who dare to run for public office. I stipulate this may not be a popular notion but hear me out. Think about how willing you would be to have to wear protective vests while you make speeches, to be the focus of personal attacks and accusations while reporters paw through your finances. School board and city council members, mayors, state and federal lawmakers and, yes, presidents, give up a lot to do the work we need them to do. I have known a fair number of public officials in my life, and I find most to be honorable, hard-working and even idealistic people who are not in office to make money or grab power.”
Al Tompkins, The Morning Meeting, Nov. 10
Nov. 20, 2022
Engaging the community with development projects
Homewood and Flossmoor regularly have new development projects that are at various stages of the process, from planning to permits to construction. Large projects often generate significant concern among residents, even organized opposition, but even smaller projects often provoke questions and reservations.
Development projects bring change, and people worry about the impact those changes will have on their lives.
I’ve watched quite a few projects go through the process while covering local government over the years. When residents resist projects, there are often a range of concerns about the specifics, but what seems common across different projects in different communities is a common feeling that projects are something to be “done to us” rather than “done with us.”
Required public hearings don’t always make a dent in that feeling, because by the time a project gets to that stage, the major decisions have been made, and it usually seems very difficult for residents to have much influence.
There are ways to get residents involved earlier and give them more say in how developments are shaped. City Bureau Chicago has published a useful guide to community benefits agreements and their alternatives.
City Bureau describes itself as a “journalism lab reimagining local media … by equipping people with skills and resources, engaging in critical public conversations and producing information that directly addresses people’s needs.” Its work, and the CBA guide, are focused on Chicago, but the approaches it describes could be adapted to the South Suburbs.
I recommend giving the guide a look. Economic development will, I hope, continue in our community, because without it we risk stagnation. But, how development happens and who is involved in the process matters.
Jan. 29, 2023
Both Homewood and Flossmoor have a number of committees and commissions consisting of residents who generously share their time and talents to help elected officials make more informed decisions.
Flossmoor has eight advisory groups: Plan Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals, Community Relations Commission, Green Commission, Public Art Commission, Electrical Commission, Police & Fire Commissioners Board, Police Pension Board.
Homewood has 13 advisory groups: Appearance Commission, Beautification Committee, Economic Development Committee, Ethics Commission, Events Committee, Fire Pension Board, Fire & Police Commission, Rail Committee, Planning & Zoning Commission, Senior Advisory Committee, Stormwater Resources Committee, Tree Committee, Veterans Committee.
Most of my experience is with meetings of Homewood’s Appearance and Planning & Zoning commissions, but I think this applies across the board: The people serving take their roles seriously and work hard to serve the community.
But who are they?
It’s not a secret. Appointments to advisory boards are listed on Board of Trustees’ agendas and made official at public board meetings. But the members’ names are not listed on either village’s website. (Note: Flossmoor’s website now lists the members of the Community Relations Commission, Green Commission and Public Art Commission.)
One role each member of each group plays is to be a liaison between residents and village government. I think it would be helpful for the community to know who they are and how to appropriately contact them. In other words, I’m not suggesting the villages post their phone numbers, but it would be useful to give them village email addresses and/or create a web contact form for each board.
If our elected officials want residents to feel more engaged with local government, I think it would help to increase the opportunities to engage.
March 26, 2023
Good government: In the Zone
A big thanks to Homewood staff for the series of social media and web posts called In the Zone.
I followed the zoning code revision process, which took 18 months, numerous code iterations, many meetings and some very meticulous examinations of changes and the various consequences they might have.
It was a lot.
Few of us are going to go read through the new code (unless we have insomnia), but it contains information we need to know. Zoning helps shape how property is used in the village, so it influences how the village works for us all. In the Zone is performing a great public service by breaking down the dense matter of the code into accessible, bite-sized chunks.
Topics so far have included basic descriptions of three residential zones and regulations on accessory dwelling units, parking pads and corner lot fences.
Good government: Flossmoor committee membership
Flossmoor has eight committees or commissions of resident volunteers who help advise the Board of Trustees on various matters. I complained a while back that it was hard to find information about who belonged to those groups.
I noticed recently that Flossmoor has listed the members of the Community Relations Commission, the Green Commission and the Public Art Commission. These are people with expertise in their areas who volunteer their time to help make the village a better place for all. They also represent sources for village residents to learn more about the challenges the village faces and to have input into solutions.
It helps to know who to talk to. Thank you, Flossmoor.
April 2, 2023
“The reality of the fact is that, whoever is elected, our candidates are only as good as we make them. … The work of government involves us all. We cannot be weak residents. We must be engaged.”
Ciera Bates-Chamberlain, Michael Pfleger, Seth Limmer and Otis Moss III
in an opinion piece published Sunday, April 2, in the Chicago Tribune.
The next step is getting more residents to bring their voices to the governing process. The pattern over the last few years has been for people to get engaged when there is a controversial issue facing the community. That’s normal and understandable but not ideal.
Routine engagement by more people would be better. I’ve seen efforts by Homewood and Flossmoor officials to build more engagement, and I hope they continue to create momentum.
Homewood, for example, made resident participation part of the process for revising the zoning code. Two new revision projects are starting up now, one to update the Downtown Master Plan and one to update the Appearance Plan. Both will, like the zoning project, include residents in the process.
I attended the first Appearance Plan meeting on March 29. Only a handful of residents showed up, but those who did had good questions, ideas, concerns and criticisms that helped shape the initial run through the question of how to manage public-facing structures the village regulates, like building facades, landscaping, lighting and signage.
One exchange was interesting. A woman who expressed her dislike for the four-story Hartford Building, at the corner of Ridge Road and Martin Avenue, asked who had approved the building’s design.
Economic Development Director Angela Mesaros noted that the village had gone through the required process of public notice, including holding a public hearing, before the Board of Trustees approved the project.
She was right, of course. The project was not a secret. The Chronicle published numerous stories about the acquisition and demolition of the Triumph Building and the planning and design of the Hartford Building.
The fact that the woman wasn’t aware of the process is not an indication that she’s not interested or engaged. After all, she came to an evening meeting to learn about and have a say in the revision of the Appearance Plan.
I think the problem is with the required process of notice and public hearings. It is necessary but inadequate.
That is, the process ensures transparency but doesn’t routinely attract engagement. Over my years covering municipal government, I’ve heard many residents say they believe once a project or budget or ordinance is on a board agenda, it’s a done deal and the rest is a formality. Too many people don’t believe their voices will make a difference, and so they don’t bother to speak.
Or, sometimes, they speak too loudly. (My theory is that people shout more when they don’t think they’re being heard.)
For major revisions of village policy, like zoning, appearance and downtown planning; taking the time to involve residents in working through issues together with staff and elected leaders has worked pretty well.
I wonder how that approach can become more routine. It helps to have village leaders inviting people to participate. Take them up on the offer.
“The work of government involves us all.”
April 16, 2023
Quote of the week
“I guess I’m the only public here today, which is somewhat of disappointing. You put out every Friday afternoon what’s going on in the village (in the email newsletter). There could have been something in there, ‘Hey, we’re presenting our budget. You want to come in and see what we’re talking about.’ Outreach to engage the public to support the things you want to do.”
John Farris, addressing the Homewood Board of Trustees, Tuesday, April 11
I don’t know if anyone has ever wondered why we start our weekly newsletter with information about meetings and events for the coming week, but John Farris’s comment (above) gets to the point.
Our local boards are good at complying with the law when it comes to public meeting notices. As I noted last week, complying with notice requirements is necessary but insufficient when it comes to encouraging public engagement.
With the exception of a handful of local government fans, few people seek out meeting agendas. They generally are not thrilling reading, but they can include some thrilling stuff.
When village governments consider new business proposals, it’s on the agenda. When school boards consider policies that affect families with children in school, it’s on the agenda. When the libraries and park district consider projects and plans that impact people who use those services, they are on the agenda.
If no one reads the agendas, important public matters come as a surprise. Sometimes word gets around in advance, and people show up to learn more and ask questions, but we don’t want to leave that to chance. That’s why The Weeks starts with meeting information. We want to keep the work of local government in the foreground so people will know what’s coming and can pay attention to what they care about.
To be engaged, people first have to be informed. It’s our job to help.
July 16, 2023
Homewood Trustee Anne Colton made a suggestion, and trustees Jay Heiferman and Lauren Roman expressed support for the board conduct more public conversations about issues faced by the village. Mayor Rich Hofeld said the board could use the Committee of the Whole format, which has been done in the past, as a forum for more open-ended conversation.
Colton lobbied for including a portion of the regular agenda for conversation with a time limit. Both formats could help make meetings more interesting and useful for residents, perhaps encourage more regular attendance.
Homewood board meetings in recent years have tended to be efficient and brief. Long meetings are not necessarily better meetings, I can say from experience, and Colton noted that nobody is interested in being at meetings for hours. It looks like Homewood trustees hope to explore changes that will include a bit more discussion in a way that protects efficiency and increases usefulness and public engagement.
July 30, 2023
I saw a Block Club story last week, Mayor Johnson Asked Chicago Youth For Budget Feedback. Hundreds Showed Up, that reminded me of a situation in Homewood that might benefit from a similar approach.
Last year, Homewood purchased the office building at Harwood and Dixie to use as the future home of a new water tower. The tenants’ leases were not renewed, displacing a number of local businesses.
One former tenant, Rachael Shores who owns a massage therapy business, expressed her dissatisfaction at a village board meeting. She was upset that the village did not provide more support for her relocation. Economic Development Director Angela Mesaros later gave a presentation to the Homewood Business Association to explain the requirements and funding limits for support to local businesses.
It occurred to me then that the issue was a budget matter that, as far as I know, has not been addressed in conversation between village staff, trustees and local business owners. It looks to me like the budget is hammered out by staff. It’s a long, demanding process, and I know staff take it very seriously. They want their departments to efficiently provide the best service possible to the community.
But the public input into the budget seems thin. The draft is released, followed a few weeks later by a public hearing, followed by a vote to adopt. Few residents or business owners participate in the process, even though it’s done in public. One person spoke at the public hearing this year for Homewood’s budget.
There are questions on many topics that could be addressed earlier in the process, perhaps in townhall-style meetings with residents. Residents’ questions and suggestions would help village officials better understand the priorities of the people. Staff explanations could help residents better understand the workings, opportunities and limits of village government.
In this case, the conversation could tackle questions like how much money do local businesses need from the village in order to thrive? How much would be appropriate given the many needs of the community? What are the consequences of increasing or decreasing the allocation for business support? What constraints come with each tool the village has available?
Even if the budgeted amount of support didn’t change, the conversation would be valuable in building a sense of shared mission. Village officials and business owners all want local businesses to thrive. Working together seems to make sense.
Aug. 6, 2023
This is how it’s supposed to work
Homewood residents filled the board room for the July 25 meeting, and 10 of them commented on agenda items, asking questions and challenging plans for the sale and redevelopment of the village hall parking lot.
Not since the Calumet Country Club controversy in 2021 have so many people shown up to talk about an issue.
Trustees thanked residents for taking the time to show and share their views.
“I’m so glad to see these chairs full,” Trustee Anne Colton said. “This is exactly what an engaged community looks like. We need you guys to come and tell us what you think.”
“I haven’t been on the board for very long but I’ve never seen this many people here,” Trustee Julie Willis said. “A lot of the comments have given me a lot to think about, things that I wouldn’t have considered before. It’s always good to have people here to give their input.”
I like it when people show up to ask questions at meetings because that prompts more detailed explanations about the various factors involved in any given issue, which helps me write better stories.