Olympia Mayor Doug Mah kicked off the 2011 election season on Jan. 2, with an announcement that he will not run for re-election this fall.
That should touch off a spirited campaign season that — hopefully — draws a number of candidates for local office.
Now is the time for would-be candidates to put their campaigns together. It’s also time for voters to get engaged. Voters’ decisions this fall will go a long way in shaping the future of South Sound.
There are 81 positions up for election this year in Thurston County.
In election parlance this is known as an “off-year election.” The president is not up for election and there are no elections for federal or state offices. What we have, instead, are a slew of city council, school board, fire district and other local government positions up for election.
It is said that the best government is the government closest to the people. And that’s the focus of this year’s election cycle — local government.
We would argue that basic government services are best provided by local governments. More often than not, these are people we know, people we see in the aisle at the neighborhood grocery store and the folks who send their kids to the same schools our kids attend. These are the people who drive through our neighborhoods, play at community parks and dine out at the same restaurants we patronize.
And once elected, these neighbors make important public policy decisions that directly affect our quality of life — in our homes, schools and neighborhoods.
It’s our representatives on the City Council who set planning and zoning regulations that determine where growth will occur and how dense that growth will be. Will we have high rises in downtown Olympia? That decision rests with the Olympia City Council.
Will Tumwater be able to find the dollars to put staff members in the north end fire station?
Lacey City Council members will decide how many police officers patrol city streets, where neighborhood parks are situated and whether applications for new commercial development will be approved or denied.
The school directors we elect this fall will set the curriculum, determine how many students are in each classroom and whether basic education is enriched by music, art and physical education classes. It’s school board trustees who set transportation routes and determine whether a neighborhood has bus service or the children are expected to walk to school. They also determine which extracurricular activities are offered to students.
Rural fire district commissioners decide when to replace aging equipment, how many firefighters to send on calls for assistance and where new stations are constructed.
All of these policy decisions affect our daily lives and our pocketbooks because they set property tax rates and whether special levies and bonds are put before voters.
Yet, sadly, these off-year elections routinely draw the fewest number of voters.
Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman said, “These offices don’t get the money on the campaign side that, say, the presidential or congressional district races get. We’re not bombarded with commercials every time we turn on the television or radio or open the mailbox. These races lack the excitement of a presidential election, but the local school board officials we elect decide what your kid is going to learn in math, and the City Council members decide what your daily commute is going to be like.”
It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.” Unfortunately for many South Sound voters, they feel more connected to national campaigns and candidates that they do for their neighbors running for local office.
Our message today is two-fold: It’s imperative that South Sound residents get engaged in these meaningful local races. Study the candidates and their positions on important local issues, then vote — in the August primary and the November general election — for those candidates who best reflect your opinions and values.
And to area residents toying with the idea of running for public office, now is the time to do the important behind-the-scenes work that will result in victory this summer and fall.
This is the time to pick an office, assemble a team of trusted campaign advisors, schedule fundraisers, stake out positions on issues, plan a kickoff, appoint a competent campaign treasurer and start raising money. Candidates who wait until filing week in June to put their campaigns together will find themselves in a hole.
The local races on the ballot this summer and fall lack the glitz and glamour of federal and state races. But the people we elect to office in November will make decisions that impact our lives every day in a significant way. It’s imperative that South Sound residents get engaged in order to cast informed ballots.