News

Why so few want to  serve in local government

Friday, February 7, 2014

By JEFF RAPSIS

Special to the Journal

You know it’s getting tough to find people to serve in local government when someone like me gets asked to run for office.

Really! Recently, I returned a call from Town Councilor Jim Scanlon, who surprised me by asking if I’d ever considered running for Town Council.

The filing period had just opened, and there was little interest in seats on the Town Council, the School Board and other offices.

The situation was alarming enough for Scanlon to speak out about the issue at a recent council meeting. Here he is, quoted in The Union Leader:

“I think it’s a disgrace, quite frankly, that with a 24,000 population in this town, it’s a search to find even two or four people willing to step forward,” said Scanlon at the Jan. 22 council meeting. “They certainly are willing to step forward anonymously and render their comments, critically or in praise, but they’re much more effectively done if done through the auspices of a seat on the council or the School Board.”

Truth is, it’s never been easy to find people to serve in local government. It’s a thankless task that requires a thick skin, a lot of free time and a medicine cabinet full of headache tablets.

But Scanlon’s comments get at something that in recent years has made public service at the local level even more ulcer-inducing. Thanks to the anonymity of email, it’s now easier than ever for anonymous trolls to complain and carp and call you a no-good son-of-a-whatever.

Want to accuse your local public official of being a snake? Well, you once had to take time to actually write a note on paper, and maybe even pay for a stamp, and put it in the mail, and so on. Now, all you have to do is type your bile on your cellphone and hit Send. There! That felt satisfying!

It would be one thing if everyone would be willing to sign his or her name. But that’s not how it works with people who mistrust their local government. Instead, the default setting for what often amounts to community-level hate speech is anonymity, and online, that’s easier than ever.

As for this year’s elections: I declined to run, mostly due to lack of time, but also because I already get enough hate mail.

Consider: Last month, I organized a screening of “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), the legendary racist feature film directed by D.W. Griffith. Held at a local college, it was to honor Martin Luther King Day by showing what the leaders of the civil rights movement were up against.

So a couple of days before the screening, I found this in my inbox:

“I’m sorry Jeff. To pick Birth of a Nation as a tribute to MLK when there are so many positive films? And so many racists that will get encouragement from this – esp in mostly lily white NE? You can’t rationalize this away. Put yourself in the place of a black person. Or a black parent esp. You really (bad word) up. Big time.

“I used to enjoy your presentations. Probably not any more. And I’m forwarding my stance and your amazing lack of humanity to many others.

“You are a disgrace with no perspective who doesn’t recognize his own inner racist to do this.

“Sent from my iPhone”

As Jack Benny might have said, after a suitable pause: Well!

Of course, there was no name attached, and I didn’t recognize the email address. But I replied and engaged in a lively correspondence, explaining why we were screening the film. Still, the writer refused to say who he or she was.

Wow, how easy to take pot shots when you don’t have to stand behind your opinion. How easy to call someone a racist and a disgrace when you don’t have to sign your name.

You may not believe it, but people who serve in local government get this kind of crap all the time. And yes, the anonymity of the Internet – and the general polarization of politics at all levels in this country – has only made it worse.

And so, of course, we get a paucity of people willing to serve. And that’s too bad because in the end, we all lose. By creating a poisonous climate, we drive a lot of talented people out of the running. What sane person would put up with it?

In years past, I used to criticize leaders of groups, such as the Bedford Taxpayers Association, for carping about town and school government, but never running for office themselves and actually doing the hard work of governing.

Well, I now salute them, for at least they didn’t hide behind anonymity. They always had the courage to speak publicly and stand behind their opinions using their real names.

We could use more of that around here.

Jeff Rapsis is a newspaper publisher, educator, silent film accompanist and care-taker of multiple dogs who lives in Bedford. He can be reached at jeffrapsis@gmail.com.

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