David Rodeback's Blog

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Monday, September 28, 2009
If You Want My Vote (Part I)

Two essential principles for local candidates who want me to take them seriously.

There are some things I need to see in a candidate for local office, before I will take him or her seriously enough to care about positions on specific issues. I don't refer just to candidates for mayor and city council in American Fork, though these are the current races of interest in my little city. And I'm thinking more broadly in temporal terms than just this year's crop of candidates. The discussion that is about to ensue partakes of years of observation and experience, not just months or weeks.

Feel free to weigh current candidates by the criteria I describe below, in American Fork or elsewhere. When I do that, I find some useful illustrations of some of what follows. However, for reasons of my own I will refrain from naming any names here, especially those of current American Fork candidates.

Be advised that this is the first in a series of posts, probably three or four. Most of my thoughts here apply to local politics generally, at least in the United States. A few may be specific to the place where I now live: squarely in the heart of Mormon Utah.

This Is Remedial

Bear in mind that this is not Local Candidacy 101; it's more basic than that. In fact, it's remedial. I'm not trying to tell candidates how to play, once they've joined the game. I'm listing some things I think should be in place before they join the game in the first place.

I am the first to admit that one might ignore all of the following and still win a local or even national election, at least occasionally. A candidate with a sufficiently souped-up marketing machine, generous funding, and good enough timing (calculated or otherwise) can win despite being mostly vacuous. In my observation, however, local candidates who measure well against the following principles sound a lot better at meet-the-candidate events, as if they know what they're talking about. And they tend to fare much better at the polls than those who measure poorly. Perhaps this says something positive about the voters.

1. Local Means Local

Candidate, my friend, I'm pleased that you love and have actually read the United States Constitution. I love it too, and it is for me a matter of more than a little ongoing interest and concern. But I've studied it enough to know that it is the constitution of a national government, not a local one. I'm not saying that the constitutional principles you espouse don't apply locally -- some do -- but I am saying they generally don't apply in the same way.

For example, the US Constitution creates what was intended to be, and to some degree still is, a limited government, empowered to do only a specific list of things -- a government of enumerated powers, you might say. Local government's role here is almost the opposite, because the reason for enumerating the national government's powers is to reserve all other powers to the states, local governments, and the people. Limited government is a crucial principle at the local level, too, but in most instances it plays out differently. The people of a city or state may reasonably and legitimately choose to grant their local and state governments powers which are not properly assumed by the national government.

In practice, therefore, with some exceptions, it's not so often a matter of whether something local government does is constitutional or not as it is a matter of whether a thing is wise, feasible, properly respectful of all interested parties' property rights, and more or less in accord with the will of the people and the values of the community. So, while open opposition to or contempt for the US Constitution might destroy any possibility that you will get my vote, your laudable commitment to that Constitution does nothing whatsoever to attract my vote in a local election.

May I pose some questions? (There's one, tee hee.)

Have you read the Utah Constitution or any part of it? (It's much longer.)

Have you read any significant portion of the local municipal code or development code? What specific local ordinances need to be passed, repealed, or amended? Why? How? Are there state laws which unduly hamper the work of local governments? Is any legislation needed at the state level to assist or restrain local governments?

If you have something significant to say in answer to these questions, then I will begin to think that you understand some portion of the government you propose to lead -- and with that, you are further toward getting my vote than most local candidates ever get.

2. Show Up -- in Advance

I'm just cynical enough about the nature of humans, especially political humans, that, if you haven't already been involved in local government in some way, probably as a volunteer, I'm not likely to take you very seriously as a candidate for local office. I'm liable to think that you're either naive but well-meaning, or an opportunist looking for a political or professional stepping-stone. Either way, you have failed to persuade me of your commitment to the city itself.

And, no, while I admire Church service and coaching Little League and working with Boy or Girl Scouts, these are not an adequate substitute for experience at some level of the government you wish to lead. You see, it's not just a matter of commitment. The issues, institutions, processes, and personalities of city government can be rather complex, especially in their interactions. If you intend to discuss them intelligently with voters, especially the ones who know something about the city's government -- you know, the neighborhood opinion-makers? the ones whose friends ask them about candidates? -- you need to know what's going on.

You won't learn everything about municipal government by serving on the parks and recreation committee or even the planning commission, but over time you'll learn some important things about -- here's that list again -- issues, institutions, processes, and personalities. You'll have a chance to show how well you can swim in a smaller pool before jumping into the Olympic-size pool of elected office. You won't learn everything about running a school district by serving in the PTA and volunteering in the classroom, but over time you'll both learn and prove some important things about yourself and the school system.

You also need to be show up in the sense of paying serious attention to issues well before you declare your candidacy, so that you have a sense of perspective and a sense of recent history. For example -- and I'm still not mentioning specific candidates -- if you've been paying attention in American Fork, you know the following about the almost-completed citywide pressurized irrigation system:

  • The alternative was a combination of building a treatment plant and replacing much of the existing culinary water system, which would have cost much more.
  • The rate structures and increases and many other facets of the project were clearly and relentlessly publicized to residents and businesses well in advance, and there were numerous opportunities for public input before plans were finalized.
  • Recent, reasonable accommodations in rates made for some local businesses which use large quantities of culinary water came at the expense of preparing fully for the time (decades hence) when the new system has passed its useful life. There are trade-offs, and this was probably a necessary one.
  • Significant increases in water bills are not so much the consequence of spendthrift leaders doing something about the water shortage, or of doing the wrong thing, as they are of other leaders dithering for more than a decade, instead of acting prudently when the project would have been about $40 million (or about 80 percent) cheaper.
  • The City largely suspended road reconstruction during installation of the pressurized irrigation system, because any new work would have been dug up right away, losing most of its value. (This does not account for several years of neglecting road care before that, but that's a separate subject.)

Finally, showing up includes regularly attending meetings of the body to which you wish to be elected. If you're running for city council, or for that matter, for mayor, you'll want to make a regular habit of attending city council meetings, starting well before the filing period begins. If you want to run for school board, you'll be at school board meetings, listening, learning, and presumably scheming a little. This will help you make an informed decision as to whether you want to run in the first place, which is important. It will help you look less like an opportunist when you do run. And it will help you avoid sounding terribly uninformed about real issues when you open your mouth during the campaign.

You wouldn't think that people would file as candidates for city council, for example, without even knowing when and where the meetings are held -- to say nothing of attending those meetings -- but it happens.

I'm a big fan of limited government, but I'm still looking for candidates who show up and pay attention.

There's one other thing that showing up will help you to do, if you show up long enough. It will teach you some respect for the office you may someday seek, and probably also for the person who currently occupies that office. Believe it or not, these are great advantages in a candidate.

That's enough for today. I'll be back soon to pontificate on more basic principles.

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