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0651, 08 Nov 16

In search of a few good people willing to serve

It’s election day, so it’s a good time to look ahead to the next election, right? My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

It is over. Perhaps the nastiest, vilest, most souldraining American presidential election since 1828 has finally slithered into election day. Tomorrow we will wake up and have to come to grips with the fact that we have elected a narcissistic liar with the rectitude of Manhattan pimp to the highest office in the nation. But while the campaigns for national offices are often heated, there are no campaigns at all for most local offices.

Decisions made at the national level have a substantial impact on our lives as Americans and warrant the attention and passion that they engender, but decisions made at the local level, like determining the level of local property taxes, which roads are repaired, how our schools are run, how many police officers our city has, how our drinking water is being treated, etc. have a huge impact on our daily lives.

Despite the importance of these local decisions and the relative simplicity of running for the elected offices that make these decisions, it is becoming more and more difficult to convince people to run for them. According to the 2016 State of Wisconsin’s Cities and Villages’ annual survey commissioned by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and conducted by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, people do not have much interest in running for village boards or city councils — particularly in small communities.

According to the survey, more than half the board seats up for election had only one candidate or no candidate at all. For cities and villages with fewer than 15,000 citizens, it was more than two-thirds with one or fewer candidates. All told, only 4 percent of respondents reported “vibrant” competition where two viable candidates were actually competing for a seat. The survey also reports that the problem has been getting worst with 46 percent reporting that the number of candidates have declined over the past few years.

Washington County races bear out the results of the survey. Looking back at the April election, all 26 seats of the Washington County Board were on the ballot. Only seven seats were contested. Seventeen seats were uncontested with only one candidate on the ballot. Two seats had no candidates at all. All three seats for the Hartford Common Council were uncontested, as were all four seats for the West Bend Common Council.

The survey cites citizen apathy, lack of time and satisfaction with municipal operations as the most common reasons for the lack of competition for the local seats, but there are other reasons. Certainly people are often busy and serving on a local common council or school board is a huge time commitment. It is also true that people who are generally satisfied with their local governments are not motivated enough to take the time and energy it takes to run for, and serve in, a local elected office.

In speaking to people over the past few years about serving in local elected office, they also express the concern and frustration with how personally invasive serving in local office can be. Years ago, an alderman or member of a school board could serve and have sometimes sharp disagreements without it spilling over into their personal lives. They might get an earful in the line at the grocery store and might lose the next election, but that was the end of it. In the internet age, it is easy for political opponents to take their aggression much further. Now someone can relatively easily dig into someone else’s work history and legal history, creep through their various social media accounts, find out where their kids go to school and their spouse works, and so much more.

Then the internet provides a vehicle for unscrupulous, or just plain mean, people to take some or all of that information and trumpet it across the globe to attack their opponent. For someone considering serving on a local school board or county board because they want to make their community a better place, it is a big risk to take. An offhand stupid comment that is recorded or a misstep in someone’s personal life can now be used as a cudgel to bludgeon a person to political death. But more than that, the same cudgel can be used against a local elected leader’s employer, friends and family. It is, indeed, a high price to pay just to spend hours debating zoning regulations on behalf of the public.

While the transparency the internet provides for local officials is good from the standpoint that it is much more difficult for them to escape scrutiny for behaving badly, it is also a deterrent to good people who might consider serving. One of the consequences of that deterrent is that, too often, the only people willing to run for these offices are people with an ax to grind, people seeking personal gain, and other malcontents.

For our republic to be healthy, we need good people to run for office. Yes, it is time consuming and the possible personal consequences are real, but the consequence of good people choosing to not run are that only the bad people are left to make decisions. There are many seats up for election next April including on the West Bend Common Council and West Bend School Board. If you consider yourself one of the good people, you should put some serious thought into serving to make your community a better place for everyone.


0651, 08 November 2016


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