If you’re reading this at about the time most people get the newspaper, it’s probably too late to suggest that you consider running for a local office, or encourage someone you think highly of to seek election. But maybe there’s still time. Filing for local elective offices closes Friday (May 17) at 4 p.m. at the Okanogan County Auditor’s Office, and you can do it online. For most offices there is no filing fee, although you will be subject to state campaign finance reporting requirements.
There are seats up for election on the Twisp and Winthrop town councils, the Methow Valley School District board of directors, the Hospital District No. 1 (Three Rivers Hospital) board of commissioners, and the Okanogan County Fire District No. 6 board. All of the offices are non-partisan, so there’s no jockeying for party support or need to retreat to an ideological hidey-hole to build a hard-core base.
But if you’ve got an interest in how your community government functions, or an issue you’re concerned about, local office may be the place to make a difference. I’m not talking about axe-grinders or single-issue fanatics. My experience watching them preen on school boards, city councils and the like is that they are generally useless outliers who sputter and disappear before they figure out how to be effective, if that was ever their goal.
Becoming a productive public representative takes patience and persistence. I’ve watched lots of newly elected officials try to make a big splash, often running up against established codes, policies and practices that they have little familiarity with. It doesn’t take long for observers to figure out which newcomers are noisemakers and which ones might have staying power. They’re the ones asking questions rather than making statements. As news reporters in training, we were frequently told that there is no such thing as a stupid question. I’d offer that advice to newly elected officials as well.
Learning the job — how to get up to speed on issues, who to talk to for advice and information, how to build alliances within your elected body and with other jurisdictions — takes time and dedication. Many elective offices pay little if anything, and the term “thankless task” was probably invented for those who take on the public’s well-being. Once you’re elected, you’re fair game for anyone with a gripe, a whacky idea or a favor to ask.
But it can also be rewarding when you see your efforts come to fruition, often after years of tedious plodding toward the finish line. Things can get done at the local level — witness the projects that Winthrop and Twisp have leveraged through local contributions, state and federal funds and supportive grants and donations. It takes vision, determination and a strong stomach for bureaucratic process.
Uncontested races or those with no more than two candidates advance straight to the November general election. If there are contested positions, the top two finishers from the Aug. 6 primary will match up in November. Mostly, incumbents go unchallenged. Some years it’s rare to have any contested races. That’s always bothered me. I think it’s better for the public to have a choice, even if it’s an odd one. During my years as a newsman in much larger markets, I saw more than a few eccentrics toss their hats — or whatever they could find to toss — into the ring. That can make it more interesting, at least.
Local elections are not always sedate affairs, as we have seen in recent years at both the town and county levels. When roused, the collective public voice can have a game-changing influence.
If elective office seems too big an initial step, you can start by considering appointed positions on boards and commissions in Twisp, Winthrop and other jurisdictions. Those citizen volunteers provide an invaluable service, albeit in largely invisible roles, and it’s a way to see how things operate and where you might fit in.
You could fairly ask: If I feel so strongly about it, why don’t I run for office? Publishers and editors in some other places have done that (I know of at least one town in Washington where the newspaper owner is the mayor). I consider it a potential conflict of interest that could raise legitimate questions about which role — journalist or public official — will be predominant, or how one might influence the other.
That won’t be a problem for the rest of you. And hey, at the very least you’ll get your name and picture in the paper.