“Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary.”
American author Robert Louis Stevenson
Imagine a person walking into a multi-million-dollar business and applying for the CEO’s job with a blank resume. With no knowledge of how the operation runs, he or she claims to be fully qualified to take the helm.
While there were opportunities to learn a little about the business through invitations to attend its board of directors’ meetings, these invitations were ignored. There were chances to serve on community organizations that worked closely with the business, but again, the applicant had no interest in serving.
We know where the person’s job application would get tossed along with a comment something like, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
However, this is precisely the resume for too many who file to run for election on our local school boards, city councils, and county commissions present. These meetings are open to the public, but rarely do we see someone considering running for public office attend them.
A person who has filed for public office unfamiliar with its operations or discussions, could start attending meetings as soon as they consider seeking office. We have rarely seen this happen.
Perhaps, if the person was an avid reader of the local newspaper’s government coverage, they would be up to date on the public body’s challenges. They would have read public officials’ conversations and debates when deciding on an important topic. But then, some don’t subscribe. Others who do subscribe don’t read the stories about their local governments.
Some public bodies’ meetings are conducted with a Zoom or similar online connection that allows a person to sit at home and listen. Too often, no one attends virtually. “There is no one online” is a common phrase a clerk will report to the public body as the meeting starts.
Our counties and cities have multiple committees that advise their elected bodies on policy and governance. While the committees vary, most public bodies have parks, public works, zoning, library, airport, economic development, and housing bodies that study the issues and report back with recommendations. School boards also have advisory committees.
These bodies are excellent training grounds for future members of a council, county board, or board of education. But too many of these bodies have vacancies because not enough citizens volunteer to serve, including those who will file for election one day. Too often, it is the same few citizens serving.
It’s true that diligent elected officials seek to learn all they can when their terms begin. But they are far behind in their knowledge of the challenges local government faces. Their decisions during this time can be made based on uniformed prejudice, hurting their community. Through time, through the reality of the responsibility of service, elected officials can learn what they were so confident of before serving wasn’t as clear or simple as they thought. They even can change their minds.
When they do, they face an even tougher choice: Do they vote based on their public education or their previous misconceptions – ones that had people supporting their candidacy?
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion,” British statesman Edmund Burke said. An elected official owes his constituents “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience.”
To get to this point, the politician must understand the powers given to them and the limitations of those powers in addressing community needs.
People elected to office without ever attending a public meeting are committing their time and energy for up to four years. It can be a demanding responsibility, taking away time spent with family and friends, at school events, and social activities. You can get people upset with you for your decisions. Those who end up not caring much for the demands of their office become indifferent to their responsibilities.
These are especially challenging times to be a public official. We must meet the needs of our employers who desperately seek employees to meet current demands and expand their businesses. We have to provide daycare for the children of the families working in our communities. We must find housing for the families we want to bring here. We strive to provide the best education possible for our children with our limited resources. We have new challenges coming at us as well.
“There are so many changes coming, and they are coming quickly, that we will see our communities forced to adapt to more in the next 20 years than they have in the last 100,” Doug Griffiths, co-author of 13 Ways to Kill Your Community and founder of the consulting firm 13 Ways.
“Those that adapt will live on and prosper, passing on their community’s mentality and attitudes to the following generations of communities, while those who resist will see their communities perish,” he writes.
We need elected officials with open minds who are diligent in educating themselves to meet these challenges. The better educated those seeking election are before getting elected, the more likely they are prepared to meet the challenges of their community.
Serving at the local level prepares people to serve in state and federal office. It is where they learn the impacts of legislation handed down to local governments that help, and hurt, their community’s efforts to grow and prosper. It is where they learn about compromise and working toward a common goal.
There are consequences to a lack of preparation, however. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” Founding Father Benjamin Franklin said.
If you are going to consider running for local office, attend meetings, serve on a committee, and read your local newspaper.