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Hectic Schedules of Elected Officials Often Unappreciated

As a member of the Henrico Business Council cabinet, I've had the privilege of lunching in recent months with members of the board of supervisors.

What I've learned has been less about county programs and issues, and more about the lifestyles of Henrico's elected leaders -- including a number of misconceptions that the public has about them.

Members of the BOS may be the closest things we have to celebrities in this county, but it's astounding how little the public knows about their jobs and what they entail.

For instance, while lunching with Dick Glover of the Brookland District, I happened to get a peek at his weekly calendar.

Back in the summertime, it featured ballgames, a meeting with the planning department, an open house at a business, and ceremonial events such as ribbon-cuttings -- in addition to the upcoming BOS meeting.

"People think I go to two meetings a month," Glover said with an amused smile.

At the Business Council's advocacy dinner Nov. 30, I asked Mr. Glover to pull out his calendar again. This time the list was even longer.

"I've counted up 41 events between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25 that I'm invited to," he said, adding that it often seems taken for granted that he will attend. "At a lot of these," Glover commented, "my absence is noted more than my presence."

Pat O'Bannon, who represents the Tuckahoe District on the BOS, agreed with Glover that constituents often have no idea how much time supervisors must put into the job.

Even the lunch with the Business Council required preparation and planning, said O'Bannon, who had solicited information and statistics from her staff so that she could accurately report on county issues and initiatives to cabinet members.

O'Bannon also noted that constituents often call her with questions or concerns that have nothing to do with county government, and that her job may require steering them to federal or state agencies that can help.

No doubt Dianne Pettitt, a member of the Chesterfield County School Board, can relate to O'Bannon's experience.

Some years ago, soon after Chesterfield shifted from appointing school board members to electing them, I had a conversation with Pettitt about the changes that had come with her new visibility.

As an appointee to the school board, Pettitt had labored in relative obscurity. But as chair of the first elected school board in 1995, Pettitt began getting phone calls at home every time a constituent encountered a problem -- school-related or not.

"People would call me up and complain about potholes," Pettitt recalls, "or wonder [after a snowstorm] when their street would be plowed!"

More recently, Pettitt said, she has gotten calls from constituents complaining about the cell phone towers located in her neighborhood.

But the call that really took the cake, she said, was from a woman in North Carolina -- hundreds of miles from her district. The caller was upset that her nephew had not been admitted into one of the Chesterfield County's specialty centers.

When Pettitt asked how the caller had obtained her phone number, the North Carolina woman admitted that the student's mother lived in Pettitt's district. But she had not had the gumption to complain to Pettitt herself. So -- she had put her out-of-state sister up to it.

Like O'Bannon and Glover, Pettitt reports that the phone calls are only one part of the job. She also has a long list of obligations to attend committee meetings and constituent gatherings, on top of regular school board meetings.

"It's a merry-go-round!" said Pettitt with a laugh.

Local elected officials also tell stories of having a dinner out interrupted by constituents wanting to bend their ear, or of complainers who intrude even on their worship. One board member told me of a colleague who has learned to arrive late at church every Sunday, to avoid being waylaid by a talkative congregation member.

So the next time you hear someone complaining about an elected official being overpaid or having a cushy job, consider what price you would require if your life were not your own.

Sure, elected officials get prestige, and a few perks to go along with their salaries. But as Dick Glover points out, most people don't go into public service for the money or the perks. The compensation that he gets for the demands on his time and the lack of privacy, Glover told me recently, is simply job satisfaction.

"It's the most interesting, satisfying thing that I've ever done," he said.

I, for one, am glad for the good people who are willing not only to take on the responsibility of public office, but also to put up with the constant intrusions on their private time.

They don't call them public servants for nothing.
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