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Our Views: Empty ballots, few choices
Contested races scarce in fall city elections
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Local voters will go to the polls in municipal elections Nov. 6 to fill their city council and school board seats. But in many cases, the number of choices are sadly lacking.

Gainesville voters must choose three members each to the city council and to the school board, potential upheaval for each of those five-member panels. Yet they will have a choice of candidates in only one of those six elections. Five others are unopposed, three incumbent council members and one school board member.

While the council will remain intact for the coming term, there will be two new voices on the school board. In those races, Sammy Smith will oppose Eric Oliver for the seat currently held by the retiring Frank Harben, while Maria Calkins is running unopposed for the seat vacated by chairwoman Lee Highsmith. Incumbent Willie Mitchell is running unopposed for his spot.

It's the same case in other Hall towns. In Oakwood, incumbents Gary Anderson, Martha Collins and Montie Robinson Sr. face no foes to their city council seats. Lula council members Judah Echols, Lamb Griffin and Larry Shuler will run unopposed. Those towns now won't even bother to hold an election.

Fortunately, there are a few exceptions. In Flowery Branch, the two council seats up for a vote each offer contested races: incumbent James Herold vs. Charles Craig Lutz in Post 1 and Christopher Setterman vs. Kellin Dobbs in the Post 2 seat held by retiring incumbent Jan Smith.

Clermont has five candidates qualified for three at-large council seats. Incumbents Seth Weaver and John Brady face opposition from Emily Harper, Albert Reeves and Doyle "Chip" Whitmire II. The top three vote-getters will earn council spots.

But in Gainesville, there will be one campaign, and only one real choice, on the ballot. Granted, it's an off-year election in which state legislature, congressional and other federal races aren't in play. Next year, we get to elect a president, U.S. senator and representatives, state legislators and more, which should draw considerable interest and candidates. But for this year, and these races, it's a shame we won't have more choices.

That's not to say that Mitchell and council incumbents Bob Hamrick, Myrtle Figueras and Ruth Bruner haven't done a good job and aren't worthy of re-election. It's just that any elected official in their position should have to earn their seat again in a campaign that addresses key issues that voters care about. The only way to have such an exchange is if someone runs against them.

Uncontested elections mean no campaign, no debates, no discussions. It usually leads to a slim voter turnout; who, but the candidates and their close friends and family, are going to bother to go to the polls to vote when there is only one name offered in each race?

The result is less participation in our election process and more limited involvement by local residents in their government. Not good.

We're used to seeing "uncontested" elections in oppressive, dictatorial regimes, where the elections are a farce orchestrated by those in power to inflate their illusion of democracy. We don't do that here; if you don't earn the public's trust, we have the right to throw you out. Only it's hard for us to do that when you're the only person running.

In recent years, city races have led to some spirited campaigns. Last year's Gainesville council seat that opened when Mark Musselwhite resigned to run for the state Senate drew three capable candidates and a lively race. Why not this time?

We can only speculate as to why more civic and business leaders aren't stepping up into public service. One reason may be as simple as money; holding public office has become more of a full-time job in recent years, but with part-time pay. Those with lucrative businesses or careers must give up a lot to hold office.

Running for office is both expensive and time-consuming. To campaign properly, even for local office, one must seek supporters willing to share their time and their wealth to make it happen. It's a big commitment, no doubt. Yet it's one many people in our community have, thankfully, made in the past.

One wonders if our faith in the political system has eroded the ambitions of those who might otherwise throw their hat in the ring. Scandal after scandal at the federal level has worn down the noble image of public service. The ugly side of partisanship and polarization has trickled down to the state and local levels, and many people are sick of it. Too many politicians value winning elections and currying favor from special interests above intelligent debate and community service. Their ignoble lust for power taints those who still serve honorably and may be driving many of them off .

The issues remain important: Growth, infrastructure, attracting industry, dealing with traffic and neighborhood issues, building schools and parks, keeping our children well educated and healthy, all fall under the purview of the council and school board. To address these issues properly, we need strong communication between officeholders and the public they serve to find the right solutions.

That communication takes many forms, and includes election campaigns. They are one of the most opportune times for residents to bend the ears of those seeking office. Candidates need to hear what issues are important to their constituents and what direction we want them to go when elected.

We're fortunate to have good public leaders in our communities, but we need more of them. Residents with ideas, intellect and a desire to serve are needed at every level of government, and in ample numbers. As incumbents retire, seek other office or move on to other opportunities, someone must fill the void and carry our communities forward. Otherwise, we'll be left with fewer choices and less say in how decisions are made.

And, as we face this November, more skimpy ballots on Election Day.

Originally published Sept. 9, 2007

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