Democratic county board fixture riding off into Hawaiian sunset

Democratic county board fixture riding off into Hawaiian sunset

URBANA – Jennifer Putman served three decades on the Champaign County Board. But she nearly didn't make it through her first term.

The Urbana Democrat was also the deputy Cunningham Township assessor, and county Republicans, who dominated the board, charged that it was illegal for her to hold two government jobs.

Putman, who did not stand for re-election in November, says there were Republicans in the same situation, but she had to hire a lawyer to save her position.

"There was a certain meanness on the board then," said Shirley Stillinger, an Urbana Democrat who joined the board in 1980, just after the legal challenge.

Putman still can recall her legal bill – $1,100 at $100 a month – but considers her money well spent. She won, and the law was changed.

Fred Grosser was her attorney.

"The proceeding against her took the position that this was a conflict of interest because she held two official positions. Our position was that she wasn't the assessor, wasn't elected to that position and didn't hold an office there," Grosser recalled.

The attorney noted that "there are conflicts and there are illegal conflicts."

For instance, the county board used to be the Champaign County Board of Supervisors, made up of township supervisors.

Grosser now serves as legal counsel to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Board, which has, by law, county and township officials on it.

Putman persevered. In 2000, Democrats took control of the board after being as low as 6 of 27 members during her tenure.

Republicans today regard her as a wise voice on the board. Greg Knott of St. Joseph, who heads the GOP caucus, calls her gracious – and perhaps the most informed on the issues of all recent board members.

Putman was 30 when she joined the board. She grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and Hawaii. Her father was a professor and her mother an attorney who worked with the Hawaii Legislature.

"My mother brought me into politics," she says.

After a couple of years at the University of Hawaii, she transferred to Parkland College and then earned a degree at the University of Illinois in urban planning. She has stayed in Urbana ever since, married for the last 14 years to Bruce Komadina, an electrical engineer.

Elected in 1978 along with Susan McGrath, now the county board's legal adviser, Putman was relegated to the "back row" of the county board, which then met at 9 a.m.

She has written a theme song for the back row, sung to the tune of TV's "All in the Family." It mentions how the mostly older white men on the board referred to the Democratic women as "girls."

Still, the Republicans and the Democrats did a lot of socializing together, as Putman's photo collection attests. At a time when the Open Meetings act was not construed as strictly, members would gather at the Embassy Tavern in Urbana for drinks and teasing. Later, Putman and Stillinger recall, the GOP went off by themselves to Bunny's.

Being in the minority meant Putman didn't have a lot of victories on county board votes of the 1980s.

"If my brightest ideas and fondest hopes for county government have yet to be realized," she wrote in a 1982 bio for The News-Gazette, "it's because I've lacked the political wherewithal, but not the will, to bring plans for sensible and open government to pass."

Stillinger said there was camaraderie in the loyal opposition.

"I think we all felt our responsibility to speak up whenever possible," she said. "Otherwise, the Republicans didn't say much in the meetings. Most of the work was done in committee or in caucus. We knew we could never win, but if we could at least try to get issues out, that was something."

Stillinger said Putman was a leader from the start.

"Jenny always worked harder than any other county board person," she said. "She not only read everything – I had to get a new (larger) mailbox after getting on the board – but then would call up people to ask questions. She was the best prepared, but people in opposition to her didn't really care for all that information."

The current board chairman, Champaign Democrat C. Pius Weibel, said Putman has maintained that diligence.

"It's phenomenal to stay on the board 30 years, especially given the diversity of responsibilities for board members, including newer ones such as Head Start," he said.

Said running mate Ralph Langenheim: "During the time I have known her, she has been one of the most conscientious and perceptive board members. She maintained a well-organized file of the past conduct of the board and always stood ready to place a current crisis in perspective."

Board members last week praised Putman for her successful fights for a living wage, for the nursing home, for minorities and for those in need.

Another District 8 Democrat, Tom Betz, praised her last week in noting that the county's Meeting Room 2 will be renamed for her, saying she deserved the honor for all her hard work.

Putman said she no longer has the stamina she did 30 years ago when she rode everywhere on her bicycle. (She still doesn't have a driver's license.) Anyway, she and her husband want to move back to Hawaii.

"It's time," she said.

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