I’m not usually considered a community activist. I have been involved in various causes and organizations over the years, but not to the point of being one of those people that seem to be constantly hip-deep in dozens of organizations and committees at a time.
I’ve also run a couple of political campaigns, losing ones, myself as the candidate. I even chaired a county party organization for a while until I got fed up with the pettiness and simply walked away from it.
Now, I only get involved with causes and campaigns that I feel I can actually contribute to. I don’t have a lot of spare time, especially during the week, so that’s a consideration as well. Then there’s the on-call thing, a rotation at work where for two weeks out of every twelve, occasionally more often, I am required to respond to a call within twenty minutes, 24/7 for that period. The call may be minor or it may kick off an all-nighter, I never know until I get it. That ‘never knowing’ means that there are large sections of time I simply cannot promise to anything or anyone else in advance. It’s the reason I have, more than once, refused nomination for elected office in the few organizations I do belong to.
I wasn’t actively seeking another cause, but this one fell out of the sky and into my lap. I read about it in the local paper and was smitten.
Hillsboro is the seat of the sixth most populous county in the state. Hillsboro does not have a public library branch. Residents of the Hillsboro area do not even have free access to the several libraries in the county.
The libraries in the county are not unified. This is another absurdity in my mind, but the fact is that people with a library card from Desoto do not get to use that card in other libraries, such as the one in Festus. There is a county library system, there are branches, but they are separate entities from those in some of the larger towns. I don’t know what to do about this ridiculous fractured system but that’s an issue for another day.
The immediate cause was to get the proposal for a modest property tax increase on the November ballot, for Hillsboro area residents to vote to establish a sub-district of the Jefferson County Library system.
Petitions had been signed and turned in, verified, and approved. The petition was submitted to the County Commission to vote to put the proposal on the Autumn ballot.
This is where I came in. This is what I read about in the paper.
I contacted the named chairman, Karen Huskey, via email, letting her know that I supported the cause as I understood it, and would like to learn more. She suggested I meet her and her merry band of pro-library-nistas at the county council meeting. It was to be the upcoming Monday night at six-thirty.
Which meant I had to drive from work directly there, not enough time to go by the house or have dinner. I got to the county facility about six-fifteen. There were a few cars in front of the nice, newer building, but plenty of spare parking. As is my custom, I parked away from the front. I sat for a few moments but didn’t see anyone I recognized. I would only recognize Karen from her Facebook photo, which if like most people’s, might be waaaaaay out of date.
So I went in, followed the din of voices to the back, a very large meeting area arranged to accommodate public hearings. On the wall behind the dais was a portrait of a rather youthful, if not downright virile Thomas Jefferson. Red wavy hair pulled back into a tight, short, colonial ponytail. The council member’s seating was side by side in a slight concave arc. Seven councilmen and a seat in the middle for the County Executive.
Jefferson County re-vamped it’s county government a couple of years back, when it adopted a ‘home-rule’ style. I really don’t know what that means. This though did mean that there were frequent pauses and conversations with the county’s attorney about procedures and rules.
The din subsided as the councilmen took their seats, the county executive called the meeting to order.
I had seated my pretty self near the back, close to the door, once again as is consistent with my chronic, introvert nature. For a while I didn’t see anyone remotely looking like Karen. I was fairly sure I’d be able to recognize her even if she did fudge her Facebook photo, due to her shock of short red hair. Sure enough she came in surrounded by a harem of school-teacher looking ladies (not an insult). She packed a bundle of folders and papers. Karen’s that type, I can’t imagine her without at least two immediate tasks at hand and carrying around every single item required for those tasks. Karen, though she would probably deny this, makes ordinarily organized people look like complete slobs.
I was going to rise to approach her, but the councilmen were getting ready to start. Coincidentally her large brood of lackeys and hangers-on filled the entire row beside me.
We settled in for a long, boring ride, our proposal was near the bottom of the agenda.
The exec called forth a local Baptist preacher for the invocation, a quaint nod to the prominent Christian traditions of the area. The prayer was bold and broad, dipping occasionally into old-English (King James) thee’s and thou’s because everybody knows God really likes it when people talk to him like a hammy, third-rate Shakespearian actor.
Then a kid led the Pledge of allegiance, since if nothing else we’re a country of loyalty-oath-synchronized nationalists obsessed with symbolism over substance.
(Why yes, I am itching for a fight! ;-) **
Then things got really dull. Tedious amendments to the minutes, parking lot zoning issues, property usage, appointments to boards, the dusty grist of the county political process. Nearly three hours in, with only one seven minute break by the council, the exec finally announced and personally endorsed the library proposition. They voted, unanimously, to pass it.
That was it. No dropping balloons, no confetti, no champagne, no marching bands. It was simply on to the last minor items, then adjourned.
I met up with the clutch of librarians and teachers outside the meeting room. I introduced myself to Karen and a few others. I asked my questions, the first one being: “A proposal to raise property taxes, in this conservative area, in this lousy economy, on the same ballot as one of the most polarized presidential races in American history. Are you nuts?”
The ladies I talked to were very friendly, generous and welcoming. They took my questions and answered them eloquently, confidently and openly. I gathered enough from this little informal, impromptu chat that I knew I wanted to be part of this effort.
The next regular meeting of the campaign committee was the following Wednesday. Over the weekend I'd presented a proposal to the Writers Society of Jefferson County, or as I refer to it 'Write Club' to make a donation to the campaign. It seemed a natural fit. Write Club meets in a Library, the one in Festus, and is all about writing and books, etc. I knew the financial situation of the group since I was the treasurer for two years. I also knew the members to all be community and literacy advocates. I was right, it was a fairly easy task. I made the proposal, threw out a number and they voted to approve it, unanimously. (should I have asked for more?)
I also hit up a local small business I happen to have an intimate relationship with, my wife's dog training business. To add to the growing sum, I wrote a check from our personal account as well. In my my mind it's one thing to 'support' a cause and quite another to throw down for it. I wanted the library campaign to know that I was serious about my support by putting my own money (as well as that of others) where my mouth was.
The Wednesday meeting was slated for seven P.M. so I didn't have to break the law to get there in time. In fact I got to Hillsboro around six-thirty, not enough time to go home, but too early to show up fashionably. So to kill about fifteen minutes I headed over to the Hillsboro's new and improved Dollar General Store. There I picked up a cheap novel and a box of mini-moon pies (banana flavor). I didn't even know such a wonderful thing existed. They're moon pies just like I used to munch on with an RC Cola as a kid, just smaller. A box of six of these lovely treats was only a dollar.
Having wasted some time and pocket change I headed over to the Presbyterian Church.
It was a small, old-style church, with an open meeting room in the basement. I entered the foyer (vestibule?) and heard voices from below. I stepped down into the musty basement and found a beehive of activity.
Karen and her flock were laying out tee shirts, exchanging papers, stacking up pamphlets, all things familiar to a grass-roots political effort. I felt oddly at ease with the buzz.
I still sat in the back, near the exit. It didn't matter, they found me anyhow. I was handed a stack of pamphlets and a couple of pages of stickers. The stickers had a legal disclaimer as required by law and policed by the state ethics commission. In Missouri all campaign signs and printed material must cite the full name of the committee paying for them along with the name of the treasurer. A lot of the pamphlets that had already been printed didn't have this, so stickers were made and applied.
Other papers were passed around, the minutes, the agenda, and a campaigning guide. As I toiled away a lady stepped down the stairs looking a little lost. Another n00b. Perhaps seeing me as a safe ally, or more likely as an irresistibly handsome, potential sugar daddy, (I get that a lot) she sat down next to me and was immediately welcomed by one of the worker bees and handed a stack of pamphlets and stickers.
Eventually the business meeting was formally called to order, the first item of business, introductions. We went around the room. Renee, the new lady, spoke first. The main items I took from her lengthy, yet information packed spiel was that she worked with the high school speech teams and that she was willing to conduct children's book readings at a new local restaurant. She would be collecting donations from the readings and contributing them to the library effort.
I wrote those things down so I'd remember to ask her about them offline. *
I was up next. I told them my name, and about my interest as a concerned citizen, and about my affiliation with Write Club. I then presented the three checks with a disclaimer. "I'm not a fundraiser, salesman, or a public speaker, I can't promise that I'll be able to bring in any more money." I wanted this to be perfectly clear. I'd rather pole-dance naked in a busy biker bar than to stand in front of strangers and ask them for money.
I kept rambling: "Letters to the editor, I can handle though, I cut my writing teeth (deliberate mangled metaphor) writing LTTE's." Karen seemed pleased with this after I told her about the scores of letters that I'd written in the 90's to the Springfield News Leader.
Then we went around the room and learned about the rest, those that had been with the effort for a while. A few were even involved with the previous, unsuccessful effort to get this done, twelve years back. There were teachers, librarians, local politicos, and an impressive teen-aged kid who came up with rather clever fundraising ideas.
I made a few notes, mostly indecipherable, as to who was whom.
Then we got to the meat of the meeting, the nuts and bolts of community campaign strategery. How many signs to buy, color schemes, fund raising ideas, the booth at the county fair, the upcoming raffles, etc. We also voted to hold the next meeting in late August. I marked it on my calendar.
After all was said and done I was given a tee-shirt, sky-blue, just like the ones being worn by many in attendance. I was part of the team.
So what's next?
I'm not sure. I'll write a couple of LTTE's, drop links on my restaurant review blog, and even write up a Tedious Discourse dedicated to the effort. I'll offer to help put up signs, maybe pitch ideas or offer opinions for firing up the masses.
We've got an uphill battle ahead of us. The greater Hillsboro area is largely rural, and if my observations are accurate, populated by a significant number of right-wing/anti-tax types. We've got to juice up the base, those that would support the initiative, enough to get them to actually show up and vote for it, as well as offer rationale to those that might instinctively be against a tax hike of any flavor, that this is an exception, a tangible exception that speaks to quality of life, of providing local families and kids with the most modest, yet essential of basic community services.
I don't think I know how to do that. However, after watching this group in action just for a very short time, I'd say we have the brainpower, the energy and sufficient collective passion already in house. If we can just keep it focused, on point and on message through election day, then we'll drive this thing home. We don't need a landslide, just one more vote than the opposition, and at his point there is no organized opposition.
So that's where we are, and what I've been up to lately. If you want to help out, then let me know, or contact the group directly. If you have advice or thoughts about the effort, please feel free to let me know.
For updates on the effort, tune your Facebook dial to:
*Local Restaurant: See the eatandcritique blog for 'Texas Taters N' More' 7/23/2012.
Speech Teams: Something else new to learn about my mysterious and closely guarded past. A High school speech student and competitor myself, I took that experience and training and occasionally applied it to my adult life. Not by public speaking, I still don't do that if I can possibly avoid it, but by judging debate and speech contests in Springfield, Mo. back in the 90's. When I heard about Renee's connection to the local teams, I volunteered my enviable and handsome services once again. She gave me the email address of the person in charge. I've yet to hear back, they're probably still quivering in awe.
** Pledge/Prayer: No disrespect intended. Of course, if you take issue with my front-loaded, deliberately baiting, tongue-in-cheek perspective on these hallowed traditions, let me know, we can talk it out... but do keep in mind these two words: 'Debate judge'.