If someone asks how your local government operates, a good response is, "Compared to what?"
Local governments, like the city councils or the school boards in Champaign-Urbana, strike different people in different ways.
Sometimes pro, sometimes con, voters can either take their local officials or leave them. But as a general rule, most people think most of their local officials try to do the right thing for the right reason most of the time.
Not so everywhere. Take the Chicago suburb of Cicero.
It was in Cicero that Al Capone, the organized crime kingpin, stored his bootleg whiskey in city hall. Circumstances there have only improved on the margins.
A few years ago, the feds ran an investigation of Cicero's municipal government that led to a boatload of convictions and the imprisonment of the town's celebrated president, Betty Loren-Maltese.
Now Cicero has a new president, Larry Dominick, but the old ways of doing business continue.
For instance, appointees to city boards and commissions collect salaries as high as $10,000 a year and health insurance to do work that might consume a portion of one day a month. Members of the elected library board receive health insurance coverage for life.
Most cities have boards and commissions, but Cicero has more than would appear to be necessary. In addition to zoning and mental health, there are separate boards devoted to graffiti and literacy.
City officials justify the generous benefits on the grounds that they're needed to attract good people. In an amazing coincidence, some of the best people who serve also happen to be related to or are closely associated with Dominick. The Chicago Tribune reports that appointees include his mother, brother, sister, son and nephew. The mayor was so willing to reach out to quality individuals that he even appointed one of his former wives.
The salaries and benefits of these appointees cost Cicero taxpayers in excess of $1 million a year, an amount that prompted potential city president candidate Juan Ochoa to suggest Cicero is "mortgaging its future."
Zeal for good government, however, can be hard to stop — even in Cicero.
Two years ago, the city council cracked down and directed appointees to accept either a salary or health insurance. They couldn't have both.
Of course, the city fathers thought it would be unfair to strip current appointees of both benefits. So they were grandfathered in under the old rules. Now only 70 percent of the 120-plus appointees collect both a salary and health benefits.
The lesson here is obvious. Everything is relative. Local government in East Central Illinois may not be all that people would like it to be. But there are always communities that have it worse or, in communities like Cicero, much worse.