Talk Newspaper: By Jeff Golden
Even in this shaky economy, some job openings in this valley are hard to fill. The fact that they come with considerable power and without specific skill requirements, doesn't seem to matter. The applicants aren't there.
Last Tuesday was filing deadline for Medford City Council candidates. A total of six people signed up for five races. The Mayor and candidates for three council seats will run unopposed (one council position had no candidates for it at all, zero, until minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline). One other seat has two contenders. That's it. That's Campaign 2008 for Medford city government.
The supply of people willing to step up to public office ebbs and flows. It happens there's no candidate shortage at all in Ashland this year, with healthy council races and seven contenders for the Mayor's chair. But almost every city in the valley has had the experience of begging individual citizens to govern.
What are the chances that a complex organization will function well when you have to get on hands and knees to get someone to lead it? Something's wrong here, and if we care about the future of public life in Ashland and elsewhere, we might want to figure out what it is.
What's your attitude towards local office-holders generally? Is it admiration and gratitude for what they give to the city? If so, you belong to a minority — or at least a minority of people who speak out at meetings and in the newspaper. More people seem suspicious of what officials are up to.
There's a current of thought running through civic culture that anyone who runs for political office must have an appetite for something more selfish than service — self advancement, ego gratification, monetary perks — and so by definition isn't worthy of our trust. From here it's a short step to resentment: since we're giving them the privileged status of public office (and God help them if they do or say anything that remotely suggests that they think they're privileged), they have an extra responsibility to deliver great government (often defined as making decisions I like) to us.
Those are the stories playing through some minds. What's the reality?
City councilors and mayors in the Rogue Valley usually meet in full session twice a month. A thick packet of briefing material arrives in their mailboxes a few days before, dense and detailed enough to require hours of less-than-fascinating reading — much less-than-fascinating — beforehand. That intensifies during the budget season, with a whole separate set of meetings and data to study. They're assigned to various committees that meet regularly and demand their own preparation. Add to that study sessions for complex issues and attendance at key community events, and a responsible councilor might have meetings more days than s/he doesn't. Some meetings come complete with an opportunity for councilors to hear about their dishonesty, stupidity or general worthlessness as described by frustrated citizens.
That's just the official part of the job. There's also an expectation that office-holders should answer to us any time and place we choose: on the telephone day or night, before and after meetings, in the produce section of Albertsons or the Food Co-op. The supermarket visit that takes twenty minutes for you and me might take two hours for a city councilor, because few of them choose to say, "You know, I'm off-duty right now. Could you send me an e-mail or drop a note by City Hall and I'll get back to you?" That would violate an unspoken belief that we own these people; they volunteered to represent us, and that means that they'd better represent me and deal with my beef right now. Which is exactly what most councilors try to do.
That's what elected officials give. What do they get in return?
Fame? People elected to public office do become better known. How they become known is another question. Survey the letters to the editor and public comments at council meetings before deciding the value of this "reward."
Fortune? The compensation package for Medford councilors for running a city of 75,000 people with a $262 million budget is ... a free box lunch or dinner at some of their study sessions. That's it. In Ashland, where we liberals love to squander tax dollars any way we can, councilors are paid $350 and the mayor $500 a year, plus health coverage.
Gratitude and public appreciation? "Spotty," would be a generous way to put it. When is the last time you thanked a local office-holder for the hundreds, sometimes thousands of stressful hours s/he donates to the city each year? You'd be adding considerably to their compensation package.
With occasional exceptions I can't think of any reason to do this job other than the urge to serve neighbors and community. We rarely make it easy or enjoyable for civic-minded people to do that. Maybe the wonder is that anyone signs up for these jobs at all. For the vast majority of us who don't: What do we bring to the party?
Jeff Golden is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts at www.unafraidthebook.com)