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Lyons: Seminar great place for new officials to start

Either next week or the following week, dozens of area residents will go from regular citizens to elected officials, and here’s hoping the change in status comes with positive changes for those individuals and their respective communities.

Certainly at the local level, and often at higher levels of government, representing one’s community whether on a school board, city council or fire protection district is a noble endeavor, albeit a thankless one.

If you’re proud of where you live, chances are that’s because there is a small group of people in your town who’ve been taking care of the little details, operating mainly under the radar and making sure needs are being addressed for little or no compensation for themselves.

Most elected officials know what they’re getting into, but there are sure to be surprises along the way. Being determined in how one plans to approach public service is a great way to start.

As they have in the past, McHenry County State’s Attorney Louis Bianchi and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s offices are providing an opportunity at 7 p.m. May 2 at McHenry County College to learn about ethics and transparency issues new and old that public officials certainly will face on their leadership journey.

Since these are the same offices that would go after the transgressions that run afoul of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, the Open Meetings Act and the Illinois Public Officials Prohibited Activities Act, there will be plenty of preventive medicine distributed in the form of information.

Very few people go into public office at the local level for personal gain or to conduct public business in secret. What they want to do is make sure their schools and municipalities are properly run, and they hope that they have some particular talents that will be useful to their constituents.

But what sometimes happens is that an “us against them” mindset develops somewhere into a political term. Often the “us” is other elected officials and employees of the government agency, while “them” is sometimes the public and/or the local media.

It doesn’t have to be that way and it shouldn’t be, but conflict creates negative emotions. There will be conflict. Sometimes people will be irrational or even hostile. It’s grown-up life.

Deny some guy a fence permit, and you’ve just become Public Enemy No. 1. Suspend some kid from school because he deserves it, and his mom will call the newspaper because he didn’t deserve it.

As long as a public official remembers that he represents the angry fence guy and the beleaguered mother of the juvenile delinquent as much as anyone else, things should go OK. This is public service.

Being available for rants as well as praise. Making sure your agency is transparent with its actions and records despite resistance from within. Staying out of even potential conflicts of interests. These are all big parts of doing the job well.

The transparency and ethics seminar is open to all newly elected officials, incumbents and the public.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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