Public participation key to civilized community

Friday, January 20, 2012

The closing of filings this week showed a lamentable trend. Fewer people want to run for public office.

In one sense, the lack of a stampede shows a greater degree of satisfaction with the job being done on city councils, school boards and road districts. That's good. On the other hand, a lack of new people often reflects an absence of new ideas in the discourse. That's not so good.

The greatest danger in a public body composed of people not trained in the field is a lack of expertise. That's the downside of term limits, sending people away after they figure out how the system works. Representatives spend their efforts trying to get re-elected rather than overhauling operations to make them work better.

The second greatest, and much more subtle, danger is the herd mentality that develops on boards. It's much more difficult to disagree and find a way to woo other board members into a contrary point of view than it is to go along for the ride. Too many boards sink into an "us versus (him or her)" mentality, discouraging other opinions from getting aired in the first place.

Unfortunately, a voter can't tell how a candidate will stand up to the heat, or how badly that candidate will want to fit in. In many cases, the public simply has to roll the dice and hope for the best.

Elected officials need to remember their job is to be a vote and a voice that makes a difference.

A similar issue came up at the Lawrence County budget hearing this week when County Treasurer Sharon Kleine asked Sheriff Brad DeLay if there was anything the public could do to reduce crime. DeLay suggested bringing back public executions to leave an impression. On a more practical level, the sheriff said many people witnessing crimes think it's someone else's responsibility to call it in.

We can hardly expect a civil society if people won't stand up to serve and law abiding citizens will not take a stand against those who would take or destroy their property. We can't afford to forget that democracies developed centuries after kings and dictators took over when no one else would stand together to do what needed to be done.

If crime is increasing, as the rise in calls to DeLay's office suggests, then the people have a much higher obligation to do something about it. Working with the police is a lot different than leaving it all to the police.

At the same time, good government comes from the grass roots. The willingness to learn how to lead, the courage to express a different opinion and the commitment to get involved are sorely needed.

Thanks goes out to those who have agreed to serve in so many public positions, and those willing to run. Small towns don't thrive without people willing to step forward, and others standing behind them, able to stand in their place.