Editorial: Cities need leaders, so step up and get involved
It is said that two is a coincidence; three is a trend.
We're not sure of the validity of that old saw, but we'll take it — because if there were a trend in Washington County away from people wanting anything to do with local government, it's one we would find disturbing.
In Gaston, just-elected Mayor Jerry Spaulding decided last month that he didn't want the job anymore. There's a lot more to the story, but at the end of the day, being the top elected official in town wasn't enough to hold Spaulding's interest, and as a result, Washington County's smallest city will be run by an appointed mayor, David Meeker, through the end of 2022.
Meeker's seat on the Gaston City Council remains unfilled, and with political in-fighting among Gaston city councilors and employees, it's unclear if and when that will change.
In Banks, the city is in relatively less turmoil. But that seemingly hasn't made Banks residents any more eager to apply for the vacancy on the Banks City Council left by Teri Branstitre, who resigned all the way back in January because she was moving out of the city.
Not enough people have for Branstitre's seat, according to city officials. The City Council has extended the deadline for applications, hoping to actually have a pool of candidates — or at least more than one — from which to choose.
Despite some geographic similarities — they're respectively a few miles south and north of Forest Grove, and they're both positioned along Highway 47 — Gaston and Banks are distinctly different communities, and there are different issues at play between the two of them. But they're also both small towns, places that still have one small high school of their own, where it doesn't take long to get to know the people you see at the store, or at church, or when you're out to dinner.
Government, which many of us often think of as this far-off, high-up thing — a modern-day Mount Olympus, flinging down edicts and lightning bolts upon its subjects — is never closer to the people than it is in towns like Gaston and Banks. The policies that it sets and the decisions it makes are not abstract. The consequences of what it does reverberate. And if it doesn't act in accordance with residents' wishes, it doesn't take many votes to change it.
In short: This is a job that people should want. It's both important and relatively attainable. Compared to being, say, a Portland city commissioner, serving on a city council in a small town is a light commitment; on average, the Gaston and Banks city councils meet once per month.
So why does no one want these jobs? We have some theories.
There's probably never an "easy" time to be an elected official, but if there's a hard time, it's now. The state of politics in our country is as polarized as it has been in decades, maybe longer. Social media means that both information and disinformation spread at the speed of light.
Just ask the lawmakers in Salem who have been bombarded with letters, calls and office visits — some of them far more pleasant than others — even about legislation that doesn't break down evenly along party lines, like the abandoned effort to limit vaccine exemptions from earlier this spring.
For that matter, just ask the members of the Forest Grove School Board who faced a concerted, and ultimately successful, effort to sweep them out in favor of reform-minded candidates two years ago.
We're tough on our elected leaders. We expect a lot from them. And that's not a bad thing.
We live in a country with a representative form of government. In some cases, we take that to extremes, as evidenced by the fact that when we think we're voting to elect a president, we're actually voting to elect a delegate to the Electoral College who will then vote to elect a president. (Just ask our neighbors in Washington, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, only to have fully one-third of their 12 electors decide they knew better than the voters and cast Washington's electoral votes for someone else instead.) But in most cases, it's simply the only practical way to manage things.
When we elect a city councilor, or a school board member, or a state legislator, or a member of Congress, we're voting for the person we believe will do the best job at representing our interests. We vote for Jill Jones because she wants to invest more in police and emergency services, and we're concerned about the safety of our neighborhood. We vote for John Smith because he's worked in the schools, and we need someone who understands the issues that our students and teachers are facing. We vote for the person who, we would like to think, will handle things the way that we would — if only we had the time, or the energy, or the inclination to put ourselves out there.
Well, if you live in Gaston or Banks, now is your chance.
It's a rough-and-tumble business, politics — there's no denying that. And just like when you ask somebody you like on a date, or when you get up to speak in front of your chamber or social club or parent-teacher group, or when you apply for a job you really want, you have to put yourself out there and accept that you may not like the result.
But this is also a chance to make a difference for your community. Gaston needs level-headed leaders who will make responsible decisions about how to resolve the city's problems and guide it toward a more sensible future. Banks needs a full council to help guide it through a water shortage that has impeded development.
This is the time for people who care about the places they live to step up and make a difference.
If not you, then who?
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