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Inspiring Leadership: Finding Satisfaction and Balance in Public Service

Bob Jehn was the longest serving member to date of the Cloverdale City Council, a former four-time mayor and member of the League board of directors. His resignation was effective July 4. This article originally appeared July 2, 2008, in the Press Democrat and is reprinted with kind permission. All rights reserved. Content may not be reproduced without permission of the Press Democrat.

When I was first elected to the Cloverdale City Council in 1994, our kids had been on their own for a couple of years. I was already involved in community activities, and I thought I could make an even bigger difference as a member of the city council. Fourteen years later, I am withdrawing from public life to devote more time to my business and family.

So, what’s it like to balance public and personal life as a volunteer elected official? (Well, almost volunteer -- my take-home pay from the city has been less than $200 a month for 12 years, and it was half that when I first joined the council.) Writing this column has taken some thought, because as we do our job as council members and as members of the boards and commissions most of us sit on, we don’t particularly view our contributions as conflicting with anything personal.

Most of us enjoy the notoriety that comes with being a leader in the community. It’s exciting to know that reporters care what you think, and that after an interview on Tuesday, you know your name will be in the paper on Wednesday. It’s nice to have police officers wave back to you. It’s gratifying to have people you don’t even know tell you what a good job you are doing. (To me, the last item is by far the most pleasant and uplifting part of the job.)

These things make you want to do more. And so you get appointed to another board or commission because you want to find a new challenge and make a bigger difference. My passion for re-establishing rail service on the Northwestern Pacific right-of-way, my desire to solve the fiscal problems of state and local government, and my longing for real reform in health care made for a natural progression to the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) Board, the board of directors of the League of California Cities and to a run for the state Legislature in 2001.

When someone would remark, "I don’t see how you do it all," I would joke, "Somehow it all gets done."

Soon, my whole life revolved around the volunteer job. Before I could make a business or family commitment, I would have to check my calendar for council meetings, committee meetings, board meetings, political events, etc. Through it all, I didn’t think about missing the birth of my first grandchild and being absent for every one of my wife’s birthdays and all but one wedding anniversary.

As a self-employed business owner, being in public life is a double-edged sword. If people don’t like your politics, they won’t patronize your business. On the other hand, you are afforded entrée that may eventually benefit your business. You remind yourself that the things you do -- the decisions you make -- may have a very lasting effect on the lives and well-being of others. You just have to do what you think is right.

Even now, I find it hard to just think about all the accomplishments of the past 14 years. There is so much more to do -- so many problems to solve -- so many things that are wrong with government. So, how did I balance my public life with my personal life for all those years? The major contributor was learning to "compartmentalize" my mental processes and shift gears quickly. I realized I needed to totally concentrate and focus on the task at hand. Secondly, you have to prioritize. There are so many calls on your time that you must decide what to do and when. It seemed that every week there was a day when I was supposed to be in three places at once, and I had to choose which event to attend.

To my friends and former colleagues on city councils around the country, I applaud all that you do. It’s not easy, but it can be immensely gratifying as most of you know. For those of you thinking of running for a council seat in your city, please don’t be deterred by anything anyone says. There are lots of reasons not to get into public life, but a lot more reasons why you should.