Monday, May 23, 2011

Me Run for Office? Not Likely

Two neighbors that I very much respect asked me yesterday to consider running for city council this year. Three of five council seats will be up for election this fall. This isn’t the first time I have been asked to run for public office. There was a time in my life when I somewhat fancied that idea. By the time I arrived at a station of life where it might have seemed possible to seek public office, I had come to abhor the thought.

I have noted that most of my neighbors feel that they have done their civic duty if they vote in the November elections. A few try to vote in primary elections and one-off matters like bond elections. A very tiny minority attend their party’s caucus meetings and only a very few of those attend party conventions.

Many of my neighbors have no idea what the city council is doing unless something out of the ordinary gets reported. Many could not tell you the names of their state representative and state senator. Some aren’t sure who their U.S. representative or senators are. Yet most of these folks consider themselves to be decent, civic minded folks.

Every once in a while people get hot under the collar about some public matter that threatens to affect them in a more personal way. Then they get more politically involved—some temporarily and some more permanently. It is during such civic spasms that I have been approached about running for public office.

The current civic paroxysm is occasioned by the city considering the construction of a public works facility near my neighborhood. About a dozen years ago, descendants of pioneer settlers sold a handsome chunk of farmland to the city after reaching an understanding of how the property would be used.

A small portion of the property would be subdivided. Family members of the sellers would be given opportunities to buy lots up front. The property that was not part of the subdivision was to be maintained as green space. The city could build a park but not a sports venue on the land.

I was concerned when I heard that the actual deed did not include these agreements. Some other type of instrument was supposedly drawn up for that. The subdivision went in, part of the area became a lovely park with an outdoor amphitheater, and the remainder continued to look much as it did at the time of the sale.

Of course, city leadership changes over time. The current leadership sees a large chunk of property owned by the city that might be a decent spot for a new public works campus. City leaders are still licking their wounds from the last attempt to locate a public works facility in a residential area on property the city already owns. They appear to have stepped into a mess again, having been caught unaware of the terms under which the property was acquired.

Current leaders have been conscientious enough to check with those that were in leadership at the time the city bought the property. Former leaders have corroborated residents’ claims that the city agreed to maintain the area as green space.

It may be that the city would be within its actual legal rights to develop a public works facility on the property. But it would engender a great deal of ill will among residents, as well as descendants of original settlers who only agreed to sell the property with the understanding that it would remain green space.

Frankly, I empathize with city leadership. The current public works facility is old. Maintenance costs are rising, the buildings do not meet current seismic code, the city has outgrown the facility, the property footprint isn’t large enough to accommodate an adequately sized new facility, and even if adjacent property were available its characteristics would render it unsuitable for that use.

The city needs a new facility in a new location. Predictably, nobody wants this facility in their neighborhood. The standard not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sentiment runs strong for pretty much every location the city has considered.

It’s a sticky wicket. City leaders have been asked why they keep looking mainly at residential locations for the facility instead of considering spots that are already industrial. It turns out that almost all of the available property owned by the city is surrounded by residential communities. The city has been planned as mostly residential. There isn’t much industrial space.

Why can’t the city buy the rundown vacant grocery store for this purpose? Not sure. Maybe it’s too small or too expensive. At any rate, buying property would necessarily cost a lot more than using property already owned by the city.

Costing more is a problem. Voters have recently disciplined leaders that raised taxes instead of trimming budgets. This chastening has been sufficient for city leaders to work harder on being more frugal. I would be surprised if they voted for tax increases or asked voters to support a bond in the near future.

At any rate, some of my neighbors, suddenly concerned about what city leaders are up to, are casting about for alternatives. They should be careful. If they manage to elect new leaders, how sure can they be that the new leaders will be an improvement over the old?

I am personally acquainted with the mayor and three of the five city council members. I must admit that some of their choices upset me. But all of these people are upstanding individuals that earnestly try to do what they believe to be in the city’s best interest.

Besides, I cannot honestly say that I could or would do any better than they do. One of my neighbors suggests that this realization is “humility” and would be an asset in city leadership. Sounds like flattery to me.

I know myself to be a pleaser. I like to think that I have integrity, but I also know that I readily respond to the incentives inherent in whatever situation I find myself. I try to keep myself out of situations where my integrity might be compromised. Politics deals in shades of gray. No matter what you do you are bound to have people upset with you. You’ve got to have a thick hide in politics. I’m not sure I am (or even want to be) that resilient.

It has long been my philosophy that one can do his or her civic duty in many ways other than serving in public office. I believe that being a functional father and serving in the Boy Scouts are viable ways of strengthening the community.

Seeking public office also means campaigning. Campaigning costs money. It means unabashedly asking people to give you money and offering them a good reason for doing so. It means a lot of hard work. Getting elected usually requires a passion for the job. I harbor no such internal fire for political position.

As I mentioned earlier, I presently loathe the thought of being a politician. I once kind of liked the idea of having the honors that accrue with such positions. Now the thought of such accolades creeps me out. I have little desire to have the thrill of exercising control over others.

While some may say that we need people in public office with such characteristics of political modesty, I’m not so sure. Would you go to a doctor that detests being a doctor? Would you want to send your child to a teacher that hates teaching? Would you hire a receptionist that finds interfacing with the public abhorrent?

We live in a society where people specialize in pursuits. The more specialized and the more proficient they become, the more they are sought after and compensated. While it is wise to be wary of anyone that has avarice for power over others, the fact is that we tend to seek to fill positions with 
people that are good at performing those jobs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a server at a restaurant, a mechanic, a clerk, a farm worker, a network engineer, a manager, a bus driver, or a politician. As the ‘hiring managers’ for elected officials, voters are unlikely to select someone that doesn’t really want the job.

Even with three city council seats up for election, the incumbent factor must be considered as well. Over the years I have noted that it isn’t enough to advertise how good someone will be at serving on the city council if the incumbent is running for re-election. Unless the voters are dissatisfied with the incumbent for some reason, the newcomer won’t be elected even if he/she is the most qualified candidate ever.

I’m not sure whether any of the three incumbents are running this fall (although I suspect all are), but none of them has done anything that would cause voters to oust them. Unless there is an open seat, I would see no purpose in trying to beat an incumbent with which voters are not displeased.

The main point is that I have no desire to run for political office. (In fact, I have anti-desire to do so.) I do not believe myself to be potentially any better at managing the city than the current crop of leaders. I lack the energy and drive necessary to be elected. I am completely unwilling to put in the kind of time and effort needed to mount a serious campaign.

I am flattered that some of my neighbors think that I might be a good elected official. But it simply isn’t reality.

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