The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 27, 2013

Off, off, off Broadway

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

SUNBURY — The final push is on for this off-off-year election, the season in the cycle of democracy when we decide who should govern our communities, run county row offices and preside over district courts  narrow but important slivers of authority and function.

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, we go to the polls to choose people for offices that most directly decide the quality of public service delivered to our doorsteps — plowing, leaf pickup, paving and plumbing.

Because our communities have changed, we may not know as much as we should about those offering themselves for office.

We have witnessed in recent years the phenomenon where some communities have fewer candidates than offices. Either no one was interested or those who were could not attract sufficient support to meet threshold qualifications for a general election ballot.

It is now a chore to fill hyper-local public service jobs, where responsibilities traditionally exceeded the rewards.

With the erosion of the commercial tax base and the reluctance to overburden residential taxpayers, the gaps between what needs to be done and the revenue with which to do it have widened toward probable failure.

In Northumberland County, even mid-level pay for many elected county offices has been significantly cut back by commissioners as a means to reduce public expense.

Town boards or city councils are shakier platforms for ambitious neophytes with sights on higher office, and something of a risk for more mature reputations developed by those whose livelihoods are earned in the private sector.

The question arising from these trends is how to sustain the quality of community life when doing so requires more skill, dedication and experience while offering less and less incentive?

If your community is served by knowledgeable and competent administrators, accessible elected officials and conscientious public employees — as are many of our towns, voting can express affirmation and appreciation. Conversely, an election winner with weak (or zero) competition who receives a comparatively small percentage of total votes should read disappointment in the returns.

In the absence of controversy and difficulty to galvanize our attention, many of us disengage. As long as everything is smooth, we could care less who is making it work. That may be a way to run a railroad, but not a democracy, where the passengers are also the engineers and conductors.

I wonder how much changes in newspapering have contributed to this, and not in a good way.

Once upon a time, newspapers made an attempt to know a little something about everyone who ran for everything. I remember listing all the folks running for tax collector, constable or auditor in Monroe County’s West End, possibly the first and second to last time their names appeared in print. That is so ancient that some of those offices no longer exist.

The newspaper company I worked for then had developed, articulated and administered a “newspaper philosophy” which included the democratic obligation to inform readers who was seeking election and where tax money was being spent.

Other newspapers where I worked would partner with the League of Women Voters to print and distribute election guides that included basic bio data — age, education, experience, occupation and, frequently, a head-shot photo.

Today, we have more web-based publishing, which tracks audience engagement and uses those metrics to assist editorial and managerial decisions.

So we end up with one of those dilemmas. Did people stop paying attention to democracy because newspapers stopped providing detail or did newspapers stop providing detail because they could measure how few people cared?

Meet a downside to audience-driven life.

If invention relied solely on market feedback, we wouldn’t have minivans. Regard that as you wish.

These days, when I ask about pre-election coverage, reporters and editors seem to sift the data into contested and uncontested. The explanatory phrase “There is no race for that” is offered often.

Then, last week, members of the Union County League of Women Voters distributed their election guide, which takes that “old-school” approach to civic duty. Wandering through the office, I heard someone say, “There is a lot of good information in this.”

Yes, there is, Grasshopper. Yes, there is.

n Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.