Though there are only a few contested races on the July 15 state primary ballot, local voters who show up to cast ballots are likely to be a pretty ticked-off bunch.
It starts with the daily spate of bad news that we don't like reporting any more than you like reading. Our economy is struggling with rising energy prices and home foreclosures. We remain at war in the Middle East while Osama bin Laden sends occasional video greetings from his cave in the hills. Only a quarter of Americans approve of the job President Bush is doing, and that's still double what we think of Congress.
Here in Georgia, we have a do-nothing state legislature that wastes time with political games and grandstanding, passing nonsensical laws concerning Florida Gator license plates while our lakes and rivers dry up around us.
And in Gainesville and Hall County, the year has offered several instances of public officials who have violated the public's trust and mishandled the public's money. As a result, some folks around here are ready take up torches and pitchforks and run the scalawags out of town on a rail, once they are suitably tarred and feathered.
First came news of the sweetheart retirement deal by Hall County administrator Jim Shuler worth some $300,000 a year (he retires for good Monday). Then accusations that the chairman of the county board of tax assessors padded his per diem pay to the tune of some $40,000 (that case still is under state investigation).
Following that came the revelation that Hall County Clerk of Courts Dwight Wood was legally pocketing fees paid for passports, adding up to $86,000 above his regular pay in 2007 (Wood is not running for re-election this year, with three Republicans seeking the post).
And the most recent and egregious example: The Gainesville school system has run up a budget deficit of $6.5 million, resulting in a proposal to raise property taxes during the coming budget year to stop the Big Red ink from flowing. How did it happen? Sloppy bookkeeping, bad management and runaway spending in some combination, it appears.
These are all distinctly separate incidents, and we don't mean to throw a blanket over them and imply any malfeasance. Shuler and Wood didn't break any rules or laws, and we don't know yet what will come of the tax assessor's case. And though the final word has yet to be written on the school board fiasco, there appear to have been quite a few poor decisions made but no clear instances of wrongdoing.
But each of these incidents have a common thread: The public officials at the center of the disputes failed to be accountable to taxpayers and handle public money in a responsible manner.
"Out of touch" is the phrase often used to describe those in government who don't think and live like the rest of us. It's the presidential candidate who doesn't know the price of groceries or what items most people actually buy. It's the legislator who focuses on issues that matter to a few special interests but does nothing to make the lives of his constituents better.
In our local cases, it can describe officeholders who see nothing wrong with how funds are mishandled or pocketed, legally or otherwise, while the folks who pay their salaries are asked to keep footing the bill.
As a result, people are fed up. They shell out more of their hard-earned coin on every trip to the grocery store and gas station. They'd like to take a summer vacation but can't afford to drive very far, and forget trying to fly these days. They don't have fancy perks or expense accounts they can tap to fill their wallets.
Life is tough and getting tougher. And yet government officials want us to pay higher taxes because they can't manage their budgets properly. That's frustrating to some, infuriating to many and the potential wellspring of a tidal wave of resentment.
The vast majority of public officials are capable, responsible people who sincerely want to serve their communities. Many decided to become involved in local government to take on corruption and special interests. But over time, some become sucked into the broken system they sought to reform. And when caught in the middle of a controversy, too many fail to admit a mistake and roll up their sleeves to fix it. Instead they resort to spin, excuses and fingerpointing in order to save their hides.
That's not to say that all who seek re-election should have their hat handed to them and shown the door. But it isn't too much to ask of them to get out and touch base with the voters to hear their concerns and complaints. And that also goes for those who are listed on the ballot with no opponent. They need to hear what voters expect of them, which includes staying in touch and treating residents, and their tax dollars, with respect.
As stated before, we'd someday like to see a new crop of community leaders emerge to challenge the status quo in the statehouse, county and city governments and in Washington, D.C. There are too few opposing voices and ideas out there to force the parties in power to listen and adopt better policies.
And there are too many officeholders who seem to think their job security entitles them to feather their own nests and keep the public in the dark.
Good government in a democratic republic should come from the bottom up, not the top down. And it's high time the bottom sent the top a clear message: What we're getting ain't cutting it. It's time to straighten it up or we'll find someone else.
And it starts with the primary ballot on July 15.