One of my chores around the shop here is to cover meetings of the Knox County Drainage Board — the “ditch board,” as the late Rowe Sargent called it, always with a smile.
“Chore” is really not the best word to use, for, to me at least, it is neither light work nor a disagreeable task, as the word is defined by Messrs. Merriam and Webster.
Nor would I call it routine in the sense of covering the meetings being “ordinary” or “dull.”
In the best newspaper lingo, I call covering the drainage board a part of my “beat.”
“And you sure beat it to death,” a member of the staff once groaned as she handed back to me my report on one meeting running to some 1,100 words, which she had just finished proof reading.
“But this is interesting stuff!” I pleaded as she walked away shaking her head.
(The second story, what we in the business call a “sidebar,” I proofed myself, an incautious risk for any writer under deadline pressure; but it only ran to some 900 words and, frankly, I don't think my psyche could have weathered another one of those Jess Bogard looks of dread should I have brought her a second report to read. I am not totally without compassion.)
I hold that what the drainage board does is interesting work, and important work, too, just like the work of the Area Plan Commission, the zoning appeals boards — just like a lot of the work that local government does is interesting … and important.
I mean, it may not have the same razzmatazz of, say, a county council meeting …
Okay, that was a poor comparison.
Still, while elected officials get all the notoriety, I've long held that appointed bodies such as the drainage board do most of local government's heavy lifting — and their members hardly ever get any of the credit they're due. Or even the respect they've certainly earned.
They get paid, sort of. Drainage board members get $15 per meeting.
There was once a question as to whether a board member's receiving that money qualified his position as being what the state calls “lucrative;” he was also an elected school trustee (a position that comes with a salary), and if it did he would have to give up one or the other.
The ruling was no, that receiving $15 per meeting as a drainage board member did not qualify it as being a lucrative position — a ruling that brought hearty laughs from everyone.
That $15 per meeting hardly covers the expense of doing what they're expected to do as board members — the site visits, the research, the meetings themselves, during which they often have to deal with applicants who have no interest at all in what the law allows but only want to get done what they want to do, no matter how it might impact their neighbors.
Back when he was still a U.S. senator, Jack Kennedy asked his top aide, Ted Sorenson, what cabinet position he would most like to have if given the choice.
Health, Education and Welfare, answered Sorenson, who had come from a long line of Midwestern progressives with a strong sense of doing good.
You're crazy, Kennedy answered, all the action is at State or Defense — and, for an ambitious politician, being at State or Defense was also where the spotlight was brightest.
I look at the drainage board, the plan commission, the newly-formed Unsafe Buildings Board, etc., as being concerned with the health, education and welfare of Knox County while the commissioners and council members handle all the “action” that gets covered by other media.
Being on the drainage board isn't glamorous, but the work is certainly important, and I think when work is important we in the news business owe it the proper respect by giving it coverage.
Gayle R. Robbins is editor and publisher of The Sun-Commercial. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.