Run for office
Low pay, elbow-throwing colleagues
-- what's not to like?
Friday, Feb. 20, 2009
By Thomas Hylton
Pennsylvania’s plethora of local governments is making headlines again. In his budget address, Gov. Rendell proposed consolidating the commonwealth’s school districts from 500 to 100, and County Executive Dan Onorato recently called for reducing Allegheny County’s municipalities from 130 to 43 by aligning municipal boundaries with existing school districts.
No matter the size of our governments, we still need virtuous people to oversee them. As William Penn wrote, “Governments, like clocks, run from the motion men give them. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But if men be bad, let the government be ever so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it.” Exhibit A: Bonusgate. Exhibit B: former State Senator Vincent J. Fumo.
If we want to make things better, let’s start at the grass roots. This year, there are hundreds of positions on school boards, borough councils and township boards to be filled in the region. Salaries and perks won’t be an issue in these local races, because – by law -- school board members cannot receive compensation, and the maximum annual salary for a borough council member, township supervisor, or commissioner ranges from $1,875 to $5,000, depending on the population of the municipality. Not exactly big money.
Few people comprehend the time and commitment it takes to responsibly fill these positions. Elected officials usually conduct at least two formal evening meetings a month, plus regular committee meetings and other gatherings they’re expected to attend.
Their work is vitally important. The quality of local schools is not only crucial to families with children, it affects everything from tax rates to property values. And municipal functions like police protection and land use regulation have an enormous impact on people’s lives.
A prominent feature of small government is accessibility of elected officials. Get yourself elected as council person in Belleview or Brentwood, for example, and your constituents’ problems become your problems, whether it’s uncollected garbage or people making too much noise down the street. Many residents will feel free to call you in the evening or bend your ear when they see you at the supermarket.
That’s why good candidates are hard to recruit. Consider Allentown, Pennsylvania’s largest city after Pittsburgh. In a recent election, only three people ran for four open seats on the city’s school board, which has responsibility for 18,000 students and controls a $190 million budget. In a city of 106,000, neither party could find enough warm bodies to fill the vacancies.
A good description of local government is Woody Allen’s quip, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” In Pottstown, where I live, I’ve seen many people become council persons or school board members simply by getting 10 or 15 people to sign petitions, thus placing them on the primary ballot. Soon they were elected and making multi-million-dollar decisions.
Most residents pay attention only to issues that affect them personally. A township may go for years with only a handful of people attending the monthly supervisors’ meetings. But let a developer propose a big housing or commercial project, and neighbors will show up en masse, in high dudgeon, to make unrealistic demands for the project to be changed or stopped. As soon as the issue goes away, citizen participation fades along with it.
Some officials are more interested in finding work for friends and relatives than serving the public. Some enjoy wielding power or desperately need to feel important. Municipal decisions are often based on egos and hidden agendas rather than concern for the public welfare.
But the ranks of local officials also include some of the most conscientious people in the commonwealth. Some of them enjoy being an elected official, and some of them don’t, but they all feel a responsibility to give to their community.
Unfortunately, virtue and street smarts don’t necessarily go together. Gentle souls are often repelled by mean-spirited colleagues and hard-ball tactics. Self-serving wheeler-dealers can excel at manipulating public opinion. And the gift of intelligence is no more amply bestowed on elected bodies than it is on the population at large.
Considering these factors, it is amazing local democracy works as well as it does. Thus far, we’ve had enough good people -- barely -- to keep the system alive and functioning. Voting is good, but running for office in local government is even better. If you want to get involved, you have until March 10 to file a nominating petition.
Thomas Hylton, author of “Save Our Land, Save Our Towns,” has served more than 10 years on the Pottstown Planning Commission. He is now running for the Pottstown School Board.