Why do they do it anyway?
By my count, six folks assumed municipal office for the first time this week - three in Shamokin, one in Coal Township, one in Kulpmont and one in Mount Carmel Borough. This includes mayors, city and borough council members and township commissioners.
No doubt news of their ascension to the highest pinnacle of local governmental power was greeted with rather diverse reactions from their friends and relatives. For all the messages, verbal and written, filled with sentiments like "Congratulations, you're just what this town needs; you'll do an excellent job," there was likely an equal number that lamented, "Holy moley, what were you thinking of to get yourself mixed up with that bunch of kookaloos?"
Just what were they thinking? Assuming they weren't coerced at gunpoint, why would someone offer himself or herself for public service?
Money is definitely not the reason, certainly not at the local level. Elected municipal officials do get paid, but not that much, not when you consider the time required to do a good job, the sleepless nights resulting from trying to figure out a way to maintain services in an era of shrinking revenues and the endless aggravation of people calling to complain their streets weren't plowed or swept/leaves weren't picked up/taxes are too high/building codes are stupid/neighbors are annoying/dogs are barking/fireworks are too loud/his tree branches extend over my property line/the lady around the corner is stealing my parking space/kids are too loud/kids answered me back/the bouncing basketball gives me a headache/their darn cats relieve themselves in my flower bed/I shouldn't need a building permit to add a room.
For some, ego may be part of the equation, but just how much of the limelight does a typical municipal official bask in? A growing number of people nowadays are so tuned out, they think they're cool because they don't vote. There's a good chance that 50 percent of the people they meet on the main street don't even realize they hold a public office. Besides, few people end up liking being waylaid on the street and told their streets weren't plowed or swept/leaves weren't picked up/taxes are too high/building codes are stupid/neighbors are annoying/dogs are barking/fireworks are too loud/his tree branches extend over my property line/the lady around the corner is stealing my parking space/kids are too loud/kids answered me back/the bouncing basketball gives me a headache/their darn cats relieve themselves in my flower bed/I shouldn't need a building permit to add a room.
They're not creating a political power base, like some local "kings" of the past did, because local, county and state governments are no longer a wholesale employment agency for the party faithful. They might get re-elected because folks think they're doing a good job or because no one else bothered to run against them, but there will almost certainly be no one voting for an incumbent because he/she is a benign emperor (a la Boss Daley) or because folks fear their wrath if they dare to speak up in opposition.
Chances are, their new positions will not be a stepping stone to higher office. Nowadays, few make the transition from city (or borough) hall to the county courthouse or state Capitol. If anything, holding a municipal office is probably a net negative nowadays for anyone wanting to become county commissioner or state legislator. The latest trend is to run for a well-paying position after avowing you are not "a career politician." If a hard-working councilman decided to run for the state Senate, even his so-called best friends would whine, "He should get over himself. Just who does he think he is anyhow?"
You probably haven't heard this since ninth-grade civics class, but the fact of the matter is, most people who run for local office do so because they want to play a role in making their community better. Maybe they have the best ideas in the world, maybe they don't have a clue. Maybe they are able to communicate their vision, maybe they can't speak in coherent sentences. But, the fact is, 99.99 percent of municipal officials do care about their hometowns.
The rest of us should be grateful for their willingness to serve. It's easy to whimper and moan behind the scenes, but elected officials are performing jobs that are indispensable to their community. If we think we know a better way of doing things, we can take the time to speak to our town's leaders directly, and if they fall short in our estimation, we can always vote for their replacements at the next election.
Instead of pointing fingers at them behind their backs or, worse, hoping for them to fall flat on their faces, we should thank all our municipal officials - and mean it. If we think we can do a better job, we should get off our big fat duffs and run for the office ourselves.
(Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)