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Our Views: Races for city offices are on ... sort of
Fall elections offer new faces in some towns, incumbents and few choices in others
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It looks like we will have another fall election with a skimpy ballot of local races.

Qualifying for municipal elections ended Sept. 4, and with a few exceptions, voters in Northeast Georgia cities will be sending a large slate of incumbents back into office.

In Gainesville, two city council seats were up this fall, but holdovers George Wangemann and Danny Dunagan were the only qualifiers. There are two contested races for the city’s school board, though incumbent Kelvin Simmons faces a challenge from the city over the state’s new nepotism law; his wife, Audrey, is a Gainesville Middle School assistant principal.

The most interesting races on the city ballot in November might be the nonbinding referendums, courtesy of the state legislature, calling for Gainesville to switch to an elected mayor and school board chairman. We’ll weigh in on that more later, but it is worth pointing out that while the election may be nonbinding, it would be hard for legislators to ignore the will of the people, depending on the clarity of the results.

In several other local cities, contested races are few. In Clermont, one council seat looked to go unfilled until a candidate entered at the last minute. In Oakwood, the slate is all incumbents. And in Gillsville, only the incumbent mayor and one councilman qualified, leaving one seat open with no takers. The council will have to fill the vacancy by appointment next year, provided someone is willing to take the job.

That’s hardly the kind of government that reflects the will of the people effectively. But there is little else city leaders can do when no one steps up to run.

That’s not the case in two other Hall County cities where voters will have a real campaign to follow: Lula, with contested mayoral and council races, and Flowery Branch, the best slate of all, with three contested council races and no incumbents seeking to return to office.

Some degree of apathy can be expected in an off-year election. After last year’s enthralling elections for president and U.S. senator, local council seats may seem like small potatoes to some. But those hard-working folks on local councils and school boards have as much, or more, impact on our lives as the guy in the Oval Office, so voting in these races is well worth our time.

Though incumbency often brings an advantage in a competitive race, it may serve to deter many challengers from even bothering to enter. Which is why most cities will be represented by the same faces on their city councils next year.

And this is not to say there is anything wrong with incumbents, many of whom offer know-how and a willingness to serve. But it still is best to turn those jobs over once in awhile to provide some fresh points of view and a diversity of life experiences.

The troublesome trend that those offices face is a lack of interested candidates, and it has been that way for the last several years. Why that’s the case is anyone’s guess. Public service can be thankless and labor-intensive, and some come away from it with less than favorable experiences. These jobs seldom pay much and they require a high level of commitment, often from people who already are trying to hold down full-time jobs and support their families during an economic recession.

Our struggling economy, in fact, makes it an even tougher time to run for office. Governments at all levels are feeling a serious pinch from lagging tax revenues, forcing them to cut jobs and services to the bone. Taking on that kind of responsibility is no picnic, particularly for novice office-seekers who don’t have the luxury of on-the-job training once they are elected.

That’s why many around here who do seek office are retirees who have a bit more available time and often a wealth of professional and personal experience, providing a good combination of skills for their communities. In such challenging times, it is even more important that the people we select to run our hometowns are qualified, dedicated and possess the right judgment to make key decisions.

It also may be that we don’t value that kind of service the way we should. Politicians at all levels become easy targets for criticism, and we in the media often lead that chorus.

But we should keep in mind that finding qualified, engaged citizens to help manage their towns is a key element of our free society. When such individuals are willing to serve, they deserve the respect and appreciation of their neighbors, and we salute everyone who made the effort to qualify on this year’s ballot.

The good news is that the prospects for the 2010 races already are much more promising. Because Gov. Sonny Perdue is limited to two terms, the domino effect has created a large field of candidates for state and local races next year.

No fewer than 12 candidates are seeking Perdue’s seat. Three of them are elected state officers, creating vacancies and thus competitive races for secretary of state, insurance commissioner and attorney general, plus other state agencies.

U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal is running for Perdue’s job as well, creating another trickle-down effect. As candidates jump into the race for Deal’s seat — nine of them already, most of them Republicans — that opens up more spots in the state legislature, bringing some fresh faces and ideas into those posts as well.

But those contests still are a year away. For now, local residents in Lula, Flowery Branch and a handful of other towns can look forward to lively races. In Gainesville, the focus will be on the school board seats and the referendums. Then it is "wait until next year" when the big fun kicks in.