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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.
Don't look now but it's nearly election time again.
Qualifying for municipal elections in Gainesville and other area towns begins this week. Seats on local city councils and school boards are up on the fall ballot.
These off-year elections don't raise as much interest as the big presidential, Congressional midterm and gubernatorial races. There won't be a deluge of attack ads on TV, radio and mailers, and for that we can all be thankful. By this time next year, we'll be missing the peace and quiet.
But this year's races are important. If you live within the city limits of Gainesville, Flowery Branch, Oakwood, Gillsville, Clermont, Lula or other towns in Northeast Georgia, local officials have a direct effect on your daily lives, often more so than those who walk the far-off halls of the White House and U.S. Capitol.
City council members decide key issues like local taxation and zoning as well as day-to-day matters like picking up the trash and maintaining roads, parks and other shared amenities. School boards have a say in how our children are educated in a way felt by each student more directly than distant policymakers in Atlanta or Washington.
These races matter, and the people who fill them need to bring the same level of competence and dedication to their offices as the political icons we watch on C-Span. They may not need to handle nuclear codes or deal with foreign leaders, but their actions can have an impact our communities, good or bad, for years to come. And we have seen examples of both.
Which is why we need to have the same kind of hard-edged campaign for city offices that we see in the upper-ticket races. And that means competitive races.
In recent years, we could count the number of contested seats on one hand in Gainesville and Hall County. With a few exceptions, most incumbents have had their hands stamped to carry on a new term without so much as having to print a yard sign or attend a town meeting.
That isn't the fault of those who hold office, who surely can't run against themselves. But for the sake of an issues-oriented campaign, voters need a choice. They need candidates to look them in the eye and tell them why they deserve a vote. Competing candidates need to match wits in a spirited exchange of ideas, allowing residents to align themselves with whom they feel is most qualified and capable.
Yet we don't get that when there is only one name on the ballot. Even if that name belongs to a respected public leader, our communities are better served by hard-fought races.
The people who serve in our local councils and boards are decent, civic-minded individuals who have given their own time and energy to serve their neighbors. They want to do right by their hometowns. And most are well qualified to continue serving in those roles.
But having a strong opponent will only make each of them more responsive and in tune with the needs of the people who elect them. It forces them to sharpen their ideas and skills and define for us -and perhaps even for themselves -why they deserve to hold their posts.
High-minded campaigns are even more important in a time when the bond of trust between the public and public officials has ebbed toward an all-time low. At the national and state level, in particular, voters have handed power to one party, only to grab the gavel away and hand it to the other in the blink of an eye when needs are not met to their satisfaction.
That general unrest has sparked the phenomenon known as the tea party, a loose but influential coalition of Americans fed up with the business-as-usual politics of both major parties. While many paint tea partyers with a broad brush, often wrongly, one thing can be said of them for sure: They are mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore - "it," in this case, being the same old political gamesmanship that serves as a substitute for true leadership.
What seems to get their goat most of all is not just this or that policy, but the idea that politicians are insulated from the public that hires them and sends them truckloads of tax money to spend. Democrats and Republicans alike are caught, one after another, in ethics violations involving money, sex and power that further widens the chasm between themselves and an ever more jaded electorate.
In many cases, these leaders aren't crooks per se (though some are). Many just have been in office so long they forget to think and act like the rest of us, assuming everyone has access to game tickets, vacations and assorted goodies. Once in power, they can't help but use it to better their businesses, friends and family. The longer some stay in office, the more removed from reality they may become.
That disconnect has sparked the kind of voter rebellion we now see. Candidates who take voters for granted will pay a hefty price. Those who take time to hush and listen are more likely to be rewarded.
Local officeholders and potential candidates aren't at this point yet in most cases; our council members don't exactly ride in limos to city hall. But the same level of irritation with politics in general will trickle down if and when they forget to remain one of the folks.
The best way to guard against that are contested races and spirited campaigns this fall. We hope community leaders who are willing to serve will give us a fall election to energize voters and make a positive mark on our cities and towns.
The sound and fury of the 2012 races have already begun, the first primaries are few months away. Before that, let's turn our focus to local races that we hope can restore our faith in a system that has let us down.