Friday, April 01, 2011

Venango Primaries 2011

(News-Herald, March 31) It’s primary season in Venangoland-- time for the usual rounds of cantankerous caterwauling about county commissioners. As usual, about 147 people have thrown their hats into the ring, and as usual, fuss is being raised.
For the casual political observer, or for the local who’s just not well-connected, it’s never entirely clear what political the fuss is about. What’s clear is that there is an awful lot going on that we regular civilians are unaware of.
So far we’ve had election board spats and a narrowly targeted petition challenge based on a technicality. Everyone involved claims that it’s not personal, it’s totally on principle, etc but out here in the cheap seats it feels a little like watching that couple who get into a savage argument about how to fold the napkins—you’re not sure exactly what’s going on, but it’s pretty clear that what’s going on is not a simple disagreement about napkin folds.
Most interestingly, there appear to be folks lining up against the local tea party—and not the expected liberal spendthrift godless Democrat types. If Venangoland is once again on the cutting edge (don’t laugh—we were all over bad defaulting mortgages before that crisis went national), this could foreshadow interesting times for the national tea partiers. At the very least, they may need to come up with a whole new set of names to call people.
There’s the old argument about full time commissioners. It’s a dumb argument. The question is not “What should we get from the current holders of the job?” The question is, “Who would want the job if it required full time commitment?” What successful businessman could leave his business for a few years (and take a pay cut to do it)? What successful professional could afford a multi-year leave of absence? Full time commissioning would be most appealing to people who aren’t busy doing anything else important. I’m not sure that’s a good deal for the county.
Put you ear to the Venangoland ground, and you’ll also hear the familiar charges of “old boys network” and cronyism. Time to get things done out in the open. Time to get out of the old smoke-filled back room.
So for all the folks who are penning garbled letters and running anonymous websites and making random accusations in meetings, here’s an observation, not meant to criticize, but to let you know how your message is coming across. From out here in the cheap seats, it doesn’t look like noble warriors standing up to the boys in the back room. It looks like a whole bunch of people in the back room together, squabbling amongst themselves.
If there’s a message you’re trying to get out, you’re doing a lousy job. Whether you’re in office, running for office, or imagining yourself a puppetmaster behind the scenes, you are communicating precious little that makes sense. Consequently what comes across is the message, “That guy over there really annoys the bejeezes out of me.”
People end up in back rooms sometimes because they imagine if people can see what they’re up to, the public will “get the wrong idea” or “the correct message” won’t come across. That’s why the sunshine law is a good idea; more public officials should pay attention to it.
A person can start to believe that because the people in the room with him are nodding their heads and cheering, EVERYBODY must be hearing him. This is not true, not even in a small town setting.
There’s another reason people end up in the back room in an area like ours. It’s the voters’ fault, and it relates to out other election season problem. Say you have an issue, and you want to share it with the giant auditorium full of people. You try to talk to them, but they can’t be bothered. They’re busy. They’re talking to each other. They don’t even show up. Eventually you conclude that it’s easier to finish the conversation in a smaller room with people who are actually paying attention.
Occasionally one of those uninvolved people beats on the door and demands to be included. Mostly they don’t.
For a moment, don’t look at the commissioner candidates. Look instead at the many positions, from townships to school boards, for which there aren’t even enough candidates to fill the empty seats. Our politicians should communicate better with the cheap seats, but those of us in those seats could stand up and try to get a better look.

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