The deadline to file for local elections passed recently, and it’s worth thanking every school board hopeful and municipal candidate for their willingness to run. The past 15 months has proven what I’ve long believed — local elections have the biggest impact on the day-to-day lives of Kansans.
Mask ordinances, business restrictions, how and where children attended school this past year ultimately weren’t dictated by officials in Washington and Topeka. Instead, local school boards made the call on what classrooms looked like. Your city commission or council also had the option to impose their own measures to fight the pandemic. Some did while others didn’t.
I won’t say the system worked perfectly because no human endeavor ever will, but it generally worked as designed. The people making those decisions not only had to live with the effects of their decisions, but they also answered to their neighbors, friends and family members. That offers a pretty good dose of accountability.
This fall, incumbents and newcomers alike will answer to voters in either the August primary or November’s general. July 13 is the deadline to register to vote for the Aug. 3 primary, and Oct. 12 is the last day to register for the election on Nov. 2.
All of the contests are nonpartisan, but the lack of party affiliation doesn’t mean there’s a lack of politics. But even the fiercest debates seem cordial when compared to partisan counterparts. Bond issues to build new schools or sales tax initiatives for municipal projects are likely to be on the ballot as well.
With more than 300 school districts and 600-plus cities in Kansas, there’s always demand for good candidates. The job description is essentially full-time work with little to no pay, little thanks and a good number of people with opinions on the job you are doing, even if those thoughts are belatedly relayed.
While I’ve never served in elected office, I’ve been in the room for hundreds of school board meetings or city council sessions over the years. Occasionally members of the public crowd into those meetings if there’s a big issue, but more often there’s little engagement outside of staff.
For a variety of reasons, there’s an inverse relationship between the power local officials have over the public’s everyday lives and the amount of time we as citizens spend sorting through the issues.
This lack of civic engagement starts at the ballot box, where voters will turnout in fewer numbers than statewide or national elections. It’s the reason why the most important quality local leaders can have is the ability to tap into their social networks and get feedback. Meetings may be where votes are counted, but the decision making process has to begin by getting input from outside the room.
I’m hopeful there won’t be another year as difficult as 2020 was, but even under the best of circumstances officials often have to make decisions based on incomplete information. I’m always amazed and appreciate there are people who volunteer to serve in these roles.
Those who step forward to fill these positions, you’ll always have my respect. I wish you well in your campaign. Should you win, your prize is weeknight meetings going to midnight or later where decisions will be second guessed by neighbors, friends and even family members.
But we all owe you a debt of gratitude for your willingness to share your time, talent and perspective to make your community, and by extension the rest of the state, a better place to live.