Democracy at work: Leaders talk about involving citizens

Mayor Dave Kaptain hands out gifts to children during the Fourth of July Parade in Elgin, Ill., on Monday, July 4, 2011. | Sun-Times Media~File Photo
Courier News
Jul 4, 2012

By Mike Danahey

ELGIN — This being the Fourth of July makes it a good time to look at the state of democracy, especially on the less visible but still vitally important local level.

Nationally, much of the discussion has been focusing on the huge amounts of cash being spent to run for office, and the impact all the blabbering to be found in mass media and online is having on the process.

Locally, there are other significant challenges to getting more people involved in the political process.

In the last election for city council in 2011, only 7,212 people — fewer than 16 percent of registered voters — pulled ballots in what also was a mayoral race.

After next spring’s election, because of Elgin’s climb to almost 110,000 residents, the council will expand from seven to nine members.

A look at the makeup of the current city council gives clue to the type of people who have been successful in their elections bids.

Mayor Dave Kaptain is a retiree who worked for the Fox River Water Reclamation District.

Councilman Rich Dunne is an Elgin firefighter who works 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off shifts.

Councilman Robert Gilliam is a retired educator from School District U46.

Councilwoman Anna Moeller is executive director of the McHenry County Council of Governments.

Councilwoman Tish Powell currently is an at-home mom who used to work for the city of Elgin.

Councilman John Prigge is a self-employed auctioneer whose business is located in Elgin.

Councilman John Steffen is a self-employed attorney whose office is in downtown Elgin.

These backgrounds mean all of the council members have relatively flexible schedules. Most have or have held jobs tied to the government or government-related, public sector agencies.

Only one works at an office not based in Elgin. Only one — Dunne — lives west of Randall Road in the city’s new subdivisions. And Dunne and his family used to live in an older city neighborhood. Gilliam and Powell are black. The rest are white.

Time issues

Former Councilman Mike Warren noted that his busy work schedule as an account manager for Rieke Office Interiors in Elgin posed challenges to serving on the council.

“Like a good many folks these days, I work 50 hours or more a week,” Warren said.

The balancing act also included finding time to devote to his wife and children and the activities associated with family life.

Depending on what issues might be before the council, Warren said he would spend about 10 to 20 hours a week on city matters.

There are two Wednesday council meeting sessions a month that start at 6 p.m. Many have been running longer in recent months, with the June 27 gathering going until almost 10:30 p.m.

The entire council now serves as the Elgin liquor control commission which means being at city hall as early as 4 p.m. one Wednesday a month when such gatherings occur.

The council also has been fond of holding special sessions and retreats that can last all afternoon before leading into a night council meeting, or last all day, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.. That can mean having to take off from a day job several times of year.

Minority politics

Another issue is minority representation in local politics.

Elgin has a significant minority population. According to U.S. Census Bureau numbers, about 44 percent of the city’s residents are Hispanic or Latino, 7.4 percent African-American, 6.1 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 3.6 percent are two or more races. About 24 percent of the city is foreign born and not U.S. citizens.

Alan Thavisouk is a board member of the Lao American Organization of Elgin and its director of civic engagement. Much of what he surmises about participation in the political process might also apply to other minority groups.

“The first wave of Lao American immigrants did not have the sufficient language skills to fully understand and engage in local government,” he said. “They were more focused on assimilating to the culture, securing jobs, and making an income for their families. The lack of language skills hinders the ability to communicate in the political forum. Many do not know how to seek resources and do not know how government functions.”

He said many also had limited educational backgrounds.

Further, Thavisouk feels local politicians don’t recognize the growing Lao American community “because of the passiveness and the low voter count and engagement. So local government officials did not focus much outreach to the community.”

Thavisouk said LAOE has been working on initiatives to create more employment opportunities and involvement in local government for Lao American citizens.

“We hope this will break the current status quo and help increase government engagement,” he said.

Work schedules

Kane County Board member Cristina Castro noted that many early generations of new Americans work more than one job, which along with family commitments, leaves little time to run for or hold office.

“All over the county I’d like to see more working class people getting involved (in holding office),” Castro said.

Castro is a Democrat running for reelection in the Kane’s 20th District, which covers Elgin’s northeast side. Without any formal, social scientific survey done to determine why, Castro said, “It’s really tough to say why Hispanics and Latinos are nor more involved in local politics or elections. That’s the $1 million dollar question.”

Mary Camacho, who has served on Elgin’s Fire and Police Commission for 18 years, said that commitments for Hispanics and Latinos often involve looking after extended family and elderly relatives. In fact, she is taking care of her 95-year-old mother.

Instant critics

Former council member Warren said it takes lot of fortitude to serve on the council when it is so easy for everyone to be an instant, anonymous critic online — and where the influence of cable TV and talk radio can manifest itself into how those critical of the city express themselves.

One of the most vocal groups in recent years has been Elgin OCTAVE. Founded by Chuck Keysor, an unemployed neighborhood activist, OCTAVE is an acronym for “Operant Conditioning To Achieve Voter Expectations.” The group says it “will reward the politicians that act responsibly with positive publicity and will punish (peacefully of course!) those with a disregard for your wallet by working to oust from office as swiftly as possible.”

On occasion, Keysor has been able to bring large crowds of people to council meetings, most notably last year during discussions of a business license and ensuing fees.

But Keysor’s critics claim he misinforms people to rile them for his causes. And behind the scenes, some Elgin residents have told Keysor to tone down his often-accusatory rhetoric, which frequently infers that the city — and those who disagree with him — are dishonest and up to no good.

Veteran Councilman Gilliam said that the often anonymous, frequently harsh and mean-spirited nature of online commenting does little to contribute to encouraging involvement.

Gilliam also noted two other factors that might hinder running for council: the $4,000 to $5,000 cost to conduct a campaign and the toll the large number of forums can have on a candidate.

“Last time (I ran) we had 10, and it was brutal,” Gilliam said.

More information

At the same time, it is easier than ever for Elgin residents to keep track of their local government, through documents available online and other information at the city’s web site; from four media outlets covering city government on a regular basis; and from the city’s other efforts, including social media and the mayor hosting walks and talks.

Yet, some numbers don’t seem to reflect big interest in keeping up with the goings-on of local government.

The readership of local newspapers, even with their web sites, has been dwindling for years, with less combined subscribers to all four local sources today than when the town had but one paper decades ago.

The mayor’s walk in May drew six people without ties to the event. A bike ride with council members in June drew just two riders without city ties.

This year, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago recently ranked Elgin third behind Naperville and Chicago on a list of municipalities rated for how well they are using the Internet to inform their residents about the local government. And the city’s Facebook page has been “liked” by 4,191 followers.

But a Courier-News story in April revealed that only a half-dozen people watch council meetings live online, while the most of any one session was just 249 views for an Oct. 11, 2001 meeting at which public safety workers were honored and to which Keysor brought a contingency.

The city also is starting a volunteer program to get more people into building a sense of community, which could translate into political involvement.

Carol Giekse, president of the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce said, “Industry consolidation, change in corporate structure and the pressures of the economy have impacted volunteerism. That is why programs like our Elgin Area Leadership Academy, the leadership training program we have had in place since 1991, are vital to continually providing volunteers for Elgin. More than 400 people have gone through it and are volunteering throughout the community.”

Camacho, who was born and raised in Elgin, noted that that sense of volunteering is not necessarily found in first- and second-generation Hispanics and Latinos. There also have been trust issues for such new Americans based on their experiences with governments back where they used to call home.

Camacho thinks it still will take some time to get more Hispanics and Latinos involved in local politics, but that younger generations are beginning to get involved through volunteering.

Castro, a third-generation Mexican American, said second- and third-generation Hispanics and Latinos are starting to vote and encouraging their parents to do the same.

“We’ve been trying to educate people of all sorts — it’s the best we can do — that if you want to make a change you have to vote,” Castro said.

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