About three years ago, Melanie Speicher, editor of the Sidney Daily News, contacted me about providing news coverage of some local village council meetings. I had some previous experience writing columns on a variety of subjects but had no experience doing feature stories or news coverage. The offer intrigued me, so I told Melanie I would give it a try. I chose two local villages not too far from where I live, Port Jefferson and Jackson Center. I selected them mostly because of my familiarity with the communities and the people living there. I figured they would be a better fit for me in that respect.
Early on Melanie provided me with a list of things the typical reader would desire to know about a council meeting. My initial coverage was a little rough around the edges, but over time I got the hang of it, and soon felt comfortable with the tasks, the protocol and the people I worked with. At first I perceived the meetings only as an assignment, duties that required compiling a certain amount and type of information that needed to be delivered by a certain time. Eventually, experience taught me how to prepare for upcoming meetings, how to connect the dots from one meeting to the next, who to contact with any questions I had concerning the articles, and how to write them in a manner that made for an informative and enjoyable to read. And so it went for a while until I felt I was in the groove, and then something unexpected began to happen.
At first the meetings seemed to be just that: a gathering of people at a specific time and place with a job to do, myself included. However, over time I developed a kinship with the people I met with and after only a short while, looked forward to the next meetings and the progress they would reveal. Though I did not live there, I felt like I was a resident of their community and enjoyed their company and proceedings.
Some of the council members were new faces to me, but others I had known since childhood. For instance, I remember attending church with PJ Councilman Tim Smith in the mid-1960s. Tim’s mother was my Sunday School teacher at Grace Baptist Church. I have known Jackson Center Mayor Scott Klopfenstein for nearly as long as I can remember, and cherish the memories of watching JC Village Administrator Bruce Metz playing high school basketball in the late 1970s. Most of the other council members were new to me, but soon I was able to put names with the faces and though I did not know them personally, I knew the friend of a friend, or had worked with someone’s relative at one time or another.
All of the council men and women I work with are different ages, with a variety of interests, occupations, and backgrounds, but all of them have one thing in common: they have a genuine concern for their villages, neighbors and friends, and possess a desire to make things better in their local communities. I have watched these people address every issue from what to do about grass clippings, to deciding who is best qualified to provide life-saving police protection and emergency services like fire and rescue. In one way or another they are connected to just about everything that’s going on. They are a big part of the life-blood of every community and its health, growth, and well-being. I enjoy working with them and admire them for their spunk.
Some of the meetings are relatively quiet and go smooth as silk with no hang-ups or disagreements, others are filled with excitement, where tempers flare as attendees debate a particular problem and possible solutions. Unfortunately, most meetings are not very well attended by the public, unless of course a particular action, plan, or proposal goes against the personal desires of some individual, or the community as a whole — then look out! There are times I would have plenty to say if given the opportunity, unfortunately, (or maybe not) I am just an observer, the guy in the back scribbling things down in hopes of reporting the news in an accurate manner. I seldom speak, except to ask unbiased questions, or clarify the facts surrounding a particular statement or point that was made in conversation.
In many ways I believe the typical village council member is one of the most overlooked and unappreciated public servants out there. Most are given some meager stipend for their services. They give up one or two evenings of their life each month, and if one would consider dividing the dollars earned by the hours invested and inconvenience endured, someone is working for peanuts. In that respect, we share a common bond … (my attempt at humor — no offense Melanie.)
The reason I took the time to pen this column was to encourage the “average Joe” (or Josephine) to consider attending their respective council meetings from time to time — if for no other reason, to pay your respects to those who labor in your behalf. There is a lot more going on at a typical council meeting than meets the eye, or ear, and it gives the attendees a chance to become active in their local government, or at the very least know how and why things are the way they are. All the improvements realized in your village or city, like better lighting, nice streets, better infrastructure, increasing property values and emergency services, and a long, long, list of other improvements doesn’t just happen by accident. Your village administrators, mayor, and council members are hard at work! They are planning ahead, looking for the best solutions for existing problems and working on ways to avoid other unforeseen difficulties before they happen. They are also looking for ways to make the best use of their financial resources and keeping costs down to a minimum. And from what I have witnessed, they do a pretty good job with what they have to work with.
We live in the greatest country in the world, and all of us are a little spoiled whether we realize it or not. However, every once-in-a-while we hit a bump in the road that reminds us how “lucky” or more likely, how blessed we are. When counting those blessings remember your local council member, stop by for a meeting, send a card of thanks, or give them a call. I’m sure they’d appreciate hearing from you.
The writer, who resides in Sidney, is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.