Empty chairs

Why so little public interest in serving the public interest?


The nation laughed when Clint Eastwood debated an empty chair at the Republicans’ national convention, but it wasn’t funny in Illinois. More and more of the seats on Illinois’ town councils and school boards, its sewage and water districts and road commissions – that cumbersome, clanking apparatus that is democratic self-government in Illinois – have no one in them.

Pedants love to point out that we do not have participatory democracy in the U.S. but representative government. But if potential democratic representatives don’t participate, there’s no government. And people are not participating, according to a review of eight Illinois counties (including Sangamon, Tazewell and Peoria) by GateHouse Media and the Better Government Association. This spring’s elections will determine which people fill approximately 4,375 local government offices. In nearly 2,950 of them, the review found, no one showed up to run against the incumbent, and sometimes no one ran at all. In Sangamon County about 500 offices are up for election, more than 350 of them had no one running against the incumbent and more than 40 had no candidate at all.

Why this astonishingly lack of public interest in serving the public interest? Every commentator mentions that people today are too busy to help run, say, a library district, but their ancestors found time to build them in the first place. Is it possible that membership on student councils has left thousands of earnest young people feeling about Robert’s Rules of Order the way that congressional Republicans feel about the budget process? Or that cable TV finally reached the exurbs?

We don’t need to look so far for reasons. For one thing, these posts are usually ill-paid in coin but too richly paid in abuse. Under Illinois’ system of public schools governance, for instance, elected board members are held accountable for the failures of administrators, teachers, principals and, yes, parents, as well as their own failures as board members. In Springfield there are seven seats on the School District 186 board to be filled on April 9. The town’s letter-senders, Internet-commenters and talk show-callers are all shouting “Throw the bums out!” because of the district’s bungling, yet in two of those seven sub-districts potential challengers to the incumbent are hiding under their beds. I’m surprised there are not more.

Then there is the fact a lot of people who want to run to serve Illinois government are prevented from doing so by Illinois government. Up in Chicagoland, a Tribune investigation found that 76 of 200 candidates for suburban city and village government posts this year have been kicked off the ballot. In no other state is it as hard to get on a ballot or as easy to get kicked off one as a result of challenges based on procedural and paperwork errors. Here’s one. State law limits political party titles to five words. (Don’t ask me.) In one town, members of one local slate objected when opponents filed to run as the Transparency & Accountability in Politics Party because the name contains six words, since the ampersand counted as a word. They were tossed.

The list goes on. Ignorance that most of these offices even exist is a factor, as is the fact that women tend not to pursue public office as avidly as men. As I noted in “Devoid of life” (July 14, 2011), because of population decline in some country towns, the problem is not lack of interest but lack of bodies.

Allow me to suggest one more explanation. It is getting harder to find people willing to do the people’s work because a lot of these jobs no longer need to be done. At the scale of the neighborhood, the township and the county, self-interest and public interest are hard to distinguish. Serving on the drainage district was a big deal if you were a farmer with low-lying land. The mosquito abatement district was not the punch line of jokes in the 1800s when malaria – the Illinois shakes – was rampant. In rural places where houses were even farther apart than decent restaurants in Decatur, being a road commissioner wasn’t about getting the roads fixed, it was about getting your road fixed.

Well, the fields by now have all been ditched and tiled, the mosquito swamps have been drained and pretty much every farm family nowadays can get to the blacktop from their house except when it snows. But if these special units no longer provide services essential to the people who pay for them, they are essential to the people who run them. Local office too often is a mere sinecure conferring status or access to patronage, and thus local govenment units are protected fiercely against sensible proposals to abolish or consolidate them. The result is that Illinois’ arrangements for self-government have become like everybody’s garage – cluttered with stuff people never use or don’t need, but which they don’t get rid of because it’s, well, because it’s theirs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. akrojr@comcast.net.

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