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OUR VIEW: Attendance matters for elected officials

THE ISSUE: County board rarely has perfect attendance
OUR VIEW: You must show up to represent
 
Every good story starts with a good question.
These words have become a mantra for our newsroom's editors. And the saying always rings true.
Recently, we reported on attendance of La Salle County Board members at full board meetings during 2017.
The numbers aren't alarming, but some of our findings did raise some concern.
The seed for this story was planted during the board's budget meeting a few weeks ago. At that time, the board voted 14-9 for an annual budget that included a 6 percent increase in salary spending.
Had everyone showed up to that meeting — a meeting where elected members were voting how to spend $73 million of public money — the vote likely would've been closer or it could've been reversed.
So is absenteeism an issue for the county board? That's the question our reporter asked himself and set out to find the answer.  
The board has 29 members, and the full board met 15 times in 2017. Seven members had perfect attendance. (Note: Board members also serve on committees, which typically meet at least once a month.)
We learned in 2015 and 2016, an average of three members were missing each meeting. In 28 meetings in those two years, the board had perfect attendance just once — July 2015.
In 2017, the average of missing members increased to 3.5. At least one member was absent from each meeting. But even one vote could make a difference on an issue.
This isn't a "gotcha" story by any means, but our reporter's research did bring about some interesting facts to light.
At the Feb. 9 meeting, eight members were recorded as absent during roll call. But as with most meetings, some members quietly leave later in the proceedings. For much of the Feb. 9 session, 10 members — or more than one-third of the board — were absent.
With such a large board, it's not as noticeable when a board member or two is absent. And several usually are.
Whether the size of the county board should be reduced is a separate issue, but the size still plays a part in the attendance discussion. 
Why? Because when multiple members aren't showing up for board meetings, that's making the argument the board can function with less members.
The county board is a representative body like a legislature, so large percentages of our county lose their voice/vote when their board member is AWOL.
It's more apparent when members of smaller public bodies are no-shows. For example, attendance is not as much of an issue with the Ottawa and Streator city councils.
On the La Salle County Board, the member with the most absences this year was Randy Freeman, R-Lostant, who unsuccessfully ran for County Board chairman in 2008. He missed eight of 15 meetings.
Freeman, who works in construction with the Illinois Department of Transportation, said his work schedule changed this year. He said he'll be able to attend more meetings in the winter.
Members Tom Thrush, D-Ottawa, and Ernest "Mike" Weiss, R-Ottawa, both missed five, or one-third, of the 15 meetings this year.
Because no-shows can fly under the radar with such a large board, we pledge to readers we will keep an eye on attendance records and will report whether they improve or worsen.
So did our reporter answer his original question? It's not clear cut, but he did find some areas of concern.
To all county board members: When the oft-repeated justification for a 29-member board is rural representation, please keep in mind you must show up to represent. 

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