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Forget Washington, important local elections are looming

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Ask people what they think about politics these days. Chances are you won’t hear a treatise on candidates for your city council. But those races are more important to you than what happens in Washington. (Jud Burkett, Associated Press) Ask people what they think about politics these days. Chances are you won’t hear a treatise on candidates for your city council. But those races are more important to you than what happens in Washington. (Jud Burkett, Associated Press)

Ask people what they think about politics these days. Chances are you won’t hear a treatise on how a candidate for mayor in your town is unrealistic about what it takes to foster economic development or how an upcoming bond issue overreaches.

That’s understandable, to a degree; it’s just not excusable.

Washington always has hogged much of the nation’s political oxygen, and in recent weeks it has grabbed all of it, and probably some of the other basic building blocks of life, as well.

But there is an election scheduled for Nov. 5. Chances are you live in a city with competitive races for mayor or city council, or a bond issue that seeks to take more of your hard-earned money. And while the federal government shutdown may indeed find its way into your home and pocketbook, your local government affects you more directly than any other public entity — from the roads you drive to what happens when you flush the toilet to how long it takes someone to come when you dial 911.

However, unless a scandal strikes or a juicy bit of controversy hits the agenda, such as the condemnation of homes or construction of a sports venue, many people don’t know what their local governments are doing any more than they can name their city council representative.

Tip O’Neill, the former House Speaker in the ‘80s, was famous for saying all politics is local. He was on the right track but not entirely accurate. In this age, all Washington politics is indeed local, but all local politics is irrelevant until you get your tax notice or construction begins on a convenience store on that vacant lot across the street.

In recent weeks, various local public officials have come to the Deseret News editorial board seeking support for items that will be on ballots next month. Some of these are hefty. The Jordan School District, for instance, is asking voters to approve a $495 million bond issue that would increase property taxes about $10 per month for every $100,000 the tax assessor says your home is worth.

In Orem, the city is asking voters to continue a sales tax of one-tenth of 1 percent to fund arts and recreation centers and programs. Other local governments also have funding proposals. The Utah Taxpayers Association says several school districts and cities statewide are asking for permission to raise taxes.

When I asked Jordan District officials why they chose to put their bond measure on ballots in 2013 rather than wait a year for when statewide races attract more voters, they said the district’s needs were too pressing for them to wait.

They do indeed have many needs. It’s also true, however, that so-called “off year” elections such as 2013 draw somewhere south of 20 percent of registered voters, which can make it easier to rally enough support for victory.

The Greenlining Institute, a California group concerned with minority representation in government, recently released a study that concludes California cities would see a much higher turnout if they would reschedule municipal elections to coincide with either statewide or national elections. Off-year elections not only lead to low turnout that doesn’t really represent the community, they cost more, the study said.

I have no doubt this is true. I just don’t know that it would lead to any more informed voting, but that leaves us with a giant problem. Government by those motivated to vote because of a vested interest is not the same as government by the people.

It’s nice to have an election in which voters can focus solely on the governments closest to their front door. It would be even nicer if more people cared.

Public ignorance and apathy have many fathers. Mainstream media don’t cover local issues as they once did. Candidates lack the funds to make themselves as visible as they would like.

But the backdrop to this discussion is the Information Age, in which voters have ready access to details about anything their governments propose to do. Focus too much on the donkeys and elephants in Washington and you could miss what matters most.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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