Who will step up and lead?
Oct. 24, 2016
by Ivan Raconteur

The very foundation of our representative democracy – ordinary citizens representing their peers – is in jeopardy.

According to a recent Star Tribune story, there are hundreds of local offices across the state for which no candidates have filed.

There are two parts to the problem.

First, there are the offices for which there are no candidates.

Second, there are the offices for which only a single candidate is running.

Statewide, two-thirds of local offices have either no candidate running, or just one, according to the Star Tribune report.

The seats with no candidates pose an immediate problem.

In cases in which no candidates file, the seat will be filled by the write-in candidate who receives the most votes, provided that person meets the requirements and agrees to accept the position.

The requirements are far from rigorous, so nearly any candidate with a pulse could end up being elected by a single vote if no other write-in votes are cast.

This seems a poor way to choose a representative.

If the write-in candidate who receives the most votes declines to accept the seat, the board or council on which the vacancy occurs may appoint a person to the seat.

Locally, there is one four-year council seat on the Waverly City Council for which no candidates filed, and one seat on the Lester Prairie School Board for which no candidates filed.

This is actually an improvement from the 2014 election, in which there were two open seats on the Lester Prairie School Board for which no one filed (plus another vacancy resulting from the resignation of Board Member Matt Klitzke after the filing period closed). There was also one seat on the Lester Prairie City Council for which no candidates filed, and township supervisor and clerk seats in Winsted Township for which there were no candidates in 2014.

The lack of candidates is not a new problem, but it seems to be growing.

In recent years, cities and school districts across the country have been dealing with a lack of candidates.

In 2014, a news report in Michigan revealed that voters would be greeted by blank, or nearly blank ballots in five local school districts due to a lack of candidates.

In a 2013 story, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review noted “Of the 434 municipal elections for mayor, council, supervisor, or commissioner, 78 municipalities, about 18 percent, have no candidates or too few candidates running for available seats.”

Similar stories have been published in other parts of the country in recent years.

Although seats with no candidates are a more urgent problem, the abundance of races with only a single candidate pose another serious problem.

When multiple candidates seek an office, it presents an opportunity for voters to compare and contrast the viewpoints of the candidates.

This can stimulate meaningful discussion and the sharing of ideas.

In races with only a single candidate, the only choice voters have is whether to vote for the person or not.

This lack of choices can exacerbate the problem of voter apathy, and this apathy is already crippling the system.

Many people fought, and even died for the right to vote in this county. People are still fighting those battles in other countries around the world. And yet here, instead of cherishing the right to vote, people take it for granted, and voter turnout numbers are pathetic.

We don’t need more career politicians. We need regular citizens of all backgrounds to step up and take a turn at public office.

Especially at the local level, candidates need not be experts.

The most important qualifications are concern for their community, a willingness to listen and learn, and a commitment to making the best decision for the community as a whole.

No excuses

A lack of experience is not an excuse to avoid running for public office.

Even at the local level, plenty of help is available. Organizations such as the League of Minnesota Cities provide excellent training and resources specifically for newly-elected officials.

Lester Prairie School Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt noted the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) offers multiple phases of training for new and returning school board members.

“They also send out newsletters through MSBA with information on what does it mean to be a board member, and stuff for me, or any superintendent, to share with prospective members,” Schmidt noted. “I share some things that are relevant with possible members, and accept phone calls from them, as well. It is typical for interested people to contact me and other board members to kind of get a feeling of what expectations are and how things run.”

The MSBA recommends that each school district should develop a resource base of material which will help school board candidates learn about the school district, the district’s educational system, and the district’s school board. MSBA recommends sharing the following information with each school board candidate:

1. The school district’s policy manual.

2. The past year’s school board meeting minutes.

3. The current year’s school district budget.

4. Useful statistical profiles regarding the school district, students, and staff.

5. A list of school board committees.

6. A description of the school district’s chain of command.

7. A copy of the school district’s strategic plan.

8. The school board’s calendar including meetings, trainings and committees.

9. MSBA’s Phase Series workshop schedule.

Most elected officials would be happy to talk to prospective candidates about what the position involves.

Time, although a factor, may not be as much of an obstacle as some people think.

All elected positions require some commitment of time, and this may vary over the course of a term of office (for example, some cities schedule extra meetings when working on a budget).

Locally, many councils and boards conduct regular meetings only once or twice per month, although other meetings (such as committee meetings) will likely be required.

Time is also required for reading meeting packets and learning about issues, but compared to many other activities, this may still be a relatively small commitment.

Perspectives from elected officials

Some local elected officials shared their insight into the importance of citizens serving in public office.

Why should people run for local office?

“Decisions by all levels of government – federal, state, county, city, or township – have an effect on almost every aspect of our lives,” commented Waverly Mayor Connie Holmes. “We are all very fortunate to live in a nation that allows all of us, as citizens, to have some say in each level of government and to be able to freely express our opinions on how that government should work – whether it be through the ballot box or through direct participation. But, in no level of government can you, as an individual, have a more direct impact than in local government.

“Decisions made by local leaders have an immediate and direct impact on many of the basic services that we all depend upon for our quality of life (police and fire protection, water, sewer, streets, snow removal, basic schooling).

“It is important for people to run for local office to make certain that these local decisions are made wisely with the individual community needs at the core, and that local government is comprised of a wide range of views and ideas representing the entire spectrum of the community – not just a subset.

“And, if you cannot run for office, it is important that those that are in office have the advantage of everyone’s opinions whether through a committee, a letter, or a phone call.”

Holmes also addressed the question of what people get out of serving in local office.

“At the bottom line, serving as an elected official gives you the satisfaction of knowing that – to the best of your ability – you are helping make life a little better for everyone in your community,” Holmes noted. “Public office in a small community allows you to, in some measure, ‘pay back’ for all the privileges and opportunities that living here in this great country afford.

“Many times there are not easy answers to the issues that a council has to consider, and many (really most) times decisions that you have to make will not please everyone. But, satisfaction comes through knowing that we are doing our best for our city and our residents to provide the services that everyone needs now, while laying a strong groundwork for growth and advancement in the future.”

Other local officials shared similar thoughts.

“For me, serving on the city council is not about my ego,” noted longtime Winsted City Council Member Tom Ollig. “It is more about helping to foster a safe, prosperous community that I could raise my family in, and a community that my children would be proud to be from. Public service is about giving back and sharing your talents. It’s about being part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Howard Lake Mayor Pete Zimmerman also highlighted the role of elected officials in improving their communities.

“Running for office isn’t for everyone, but at the same time, it’s a role that is suited for anyone,” Zimmerman noted. “At the local level, it isn’t about politics; it’s about civil service and a desire to make your community better, and represent the needs and opinions of people like you.”

Zimmerman also shared his personal reasons for seeking public office.

“I enjoy being involved in local government because it gives me a better understanding of my community,” he noted. “There is great satisfaction in being a part of something that affects the greater good and has a positive impact for future residents. One of the biggest thrills of being an elected official is getting the opportunity to work with people who have so much passion for Howard Lake. I get to witness the hard work of volunteers, civic groups, and other elected officials who share the simple goal of bettering the community.”

Lester Prairie City Council Member Tim Dahl, the newest member of that council, observed that media reports that portray elected officials in a negative light can make people uneasy, which may prevent them from running for office, as they don’t want to risk friendships with neighbors, friends, or family.

“As an elected official, you are. at times, faced with difficult decisions,” Dahl noted. “However, those decisions are based upon the needs of the entire community, and not just a few. Plus, you are never alone, as you are serving with fellow elected officials.”

Dahl also appreciates the chance to help his community.

“What I most enjoy is seeing the community benefit from something I was able to help with,” Dahl noted. “I would encourage people who see opportunities to serve their communities to seize the moment. Just think, if our founders didn’t come forward, where would we be today?”

The picture may be bleak now, but if more regular Joes and Janes step up and take a turn at representing their peers, the picture can change. If more citizens accept responsibility for sharing their energy and ideas to make their communities stronger, rather than expecting “someone else” to do it, things will be better for everyone.

Instead of saying “someone should do it,” we need people who are willing to say “I can do it.”

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