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Riverside Chat: Students take peek inside local government

Published: Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

At the same time the federal government was in the midst of a shutdown, a room full of Sterling High School students sat in a conference room on the second floor of the Sterling Coliseum.

The students were there, and not in a classroom at the high school Friday, because it was Sterling’s government day. The students, all members of Jim Preston’s American government class, were at the Coliseum to study city government.

Preston has taught the class for 10 years, he said, and has taken some groups to Springfield. It’s all part of teaching them about governments at the local, state, and federal levels.

The students were learning something that I, as a city reporter covering Sterling and Rock Falls, have come to know: The local government often has a more immediate impact on their lives than what’s going on at the state or federal level.

Mayor Skip Lee mentioned this during his presentation to the students explaining his role and that of local government.

“We’re always aware of the state and national government,” he said, adding that turning on any cable news program will show members of one political party blaming members of the others for something.

“Every day, city government touches what you do,” Lee said.

And this is true. Today’s Sterling City Council agenda includes an ordinance to redraw ward boundaries, possibly changing a resident’s elected official.

Just across the Rock River, the Rock Falls City Council has approved ordinances in the last 2 months changing garbage collection and allowing convenience stores to sell alcohol. These are topics that have an almost immediate impact on Rock Falls residents.

Understanding the local governments is a big part of my job. And while I did see a few students with glazed eyes during a few of the presentations, I can’t help but think these students will be better citizens for taking Preston’s class and for listening to Lee, City Manager Scott Shumard, Alderwoman Retha Elston, and others explain their piece of the city government puzzle.

Citizen involvement is key for any government, including the city government. Many of the students will one day be voters, while others will run for public office and voice their opinions during a City Council meeting. It’s important that they’re informed and avoid apathy, Shumard told the students.

Preston’s students are taking the class at an interesting time. With budget battles in Springfield and Washington, and the federal government in shutdown mode, the class serves as a platform for discussions and questions about what it all means, Preston said.

And it’s easier to have those discussions if you know how each realm of government works.

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