August 22, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 33

Why so few assembly candidates?

With only two names appearing on the fall municipal ballot for two seats open on the Haines Borough Assembly, interest in serving on the town’s main decision-making body has reached the lowest point since at least 2002, when the former City of Haines and Haines Borough merged into a single government.

The paucity of assembly candidates is particularly striking in the wake of two changes made in the last year aimed at encouraging interest in elected office – elimination of candidate reporting requirements that required disclosure of personal income, and adoption of a “roster”-style ballot aimed at abolishing jockeying for designated seats.

Leaders, community volunteers and activists this week offered a range of views on why, in a community known for vigorous debate and outspoken citizens, more people aren’t seeking to steer the ship of state.

Melissa Aronson, a retired college professor and seven-year resident active in a number of local efforts and former Haines Chamber of Commerce Volunteer of the Year, said she rebuffed several requests that she seek one of the two assembly seats left vacant by assembly retirements this year.

Aronson leads Haines Friends of Recycling, volunteers at the public library and with We the People of Haines, and teaches a permaculture class in addition, she said, to “leading my life.” But three years in leadership positions on the Peak Oil Task Force and Haines Borough Energy and Sustainability Commission left her unsatisfied.

Not much happened at the borough as the result of that work, Aronson said. “Most of what happened in terms of changes was people looking at ideas and incorporating them into their households. It was a lot of work and a lot of time and what came of it? It was a lot of time for a little benefit.”

Aronson described the assembly’s ongoing debate over heli-skiing regulations as “silly.” Of downtown revitalization, she said, “people put a lot of effort and care into the issue but where did it go?”

“You go to assembly meetings and it seems nothing gets finished or accomplished. If the assembly could prioritize their business and manage it and demonstrate they were actually getting things done, it would encourage people (to run),” Aronson said.

Aronson described assembly service as a “huge” job. “They have to be on top of so much all the time.”

Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott said it’s been “very taxing” being a public official the last few years, dealing with public discontent about the way things are being done in local government. She attributed the lack of candidates to a populace she characterized as hypercritical but also conflict-averse.

Testimony aimed against leaders at meetings and in the newspaper includes a skepticism about motives, Scott said. “I’ve been blown away by some of the meanness of the testimony. Sometimes people become so passionate because they’re so convinced they’re correct.”

In the recent case of the scandal involving former police chief Gary Lowe, supporters and opponents of Lowe both leveled charges that the assembly members “weren’t doing their jobs,” she said. “Assembly members are trying to think outside personal agendas. They’re trying to think of what’s in the best interest of the public. When we were told we weren’t doing our jobs… to have someone tell us that publicly… is interesting.”

“When you’re an elected public official you become everybody’s property. Anybody who’s mad at you feels free to yell at you,” Scott said.

Activist and former high school debate coach Gershon Cohen has spent time in recent years recruiting assembly candidates. “I talk to people who I think might be good and see if they’re interested,” he said.

Cohen has been involved in statewide environmental politics for years but hasn’t run for local office mainly because of a work schedule that requires him to travel, often without much notice, he said this week.

“My work schedule isn’t predictable enough to make regular meetings. I am concerned with borough government and I do think it’s important,” he said. Cohen wouldn’t say whether he tried recruiting candidates for the coming election. He said the tone of local politics may be keeping more citizens from seeking office.

“People are rude to people in public office and people don’t want to bring that kind of conflict into their lives,” Cohen said. “Too often in Haines, we don’t have debates; we have arguments that are more about the people who are presenting an idea than what the idea is. That’s an unfortunate fact of community discussions all too often.”

Cohen’s comments partly mirrored those of Scott’s. “Most people don’t want to be in conflict with other members of the community. A lot of people see that when questions come up, they’re not debated civilly, but based on arguments of ideology or an attack on the messenger and the message isn’t addressed. That turns people off to local government, but unfortunately, without a lot of participation, you don’t have a functional democracy.”

Retired longtime bank manager Dick Flegel serves in a number of volunteer positions, including with Hospice of Haines and on the boards of the public library and Haines Assisted Living. He’s also active in his church and with construction of a local veterans’ home.

Flegel said he admires Mayor Scott and others who’ve jumped into leadership positions, but public office isn’t for him. “It takes a lot of time and effort and work. It’s a labor of love. You’ve got your left chin forward, then your right chin forward, and everybody gets to take a shot. I admire our local politicians who have stuck it out.”

Flegel said he believes the stature of politics has dropped in the past 20 years. “Nationwide, politicians are not highly thought of. My personal opinion is they’re nothing but a mafia run by big bucks corporations” passing 1,000-page bills they don’t write or read, with items like spying on the American public hidden in the fine print at the bottom. “I don’t want to be one of those guys,” he said.

“Everybody has their niche and talent. Not everybody wants to be a politician,” Flegel said.

Flegel’s comments seem to jibe with a recent USA Today/Bipartisan Policy Center poll in which U.S. citizens, by more than 2 to 1, said the best way to make positive changes in society is through volunteer organizations and charities, not by being active in government. The same poll found people under 30 are “significantly less likely than their parents to say participating in politics is an important value in their lives.”

Susan Johnston served as the clerk of the City of Haines for 18 years. The lack of interest in borough seats this year is similar to interest in some past city elections, although there was always more interest in borough assembly seats than ones on the city council when the town had two governments. “I don’t think it’s all that new… If we ever had three candidates for a seat, that would be really rare.”

The busiest people are the ones who take time to volunteer, including for public office, Johnston said. Often they’re business owners, but business in their stores can suffer when they make an unpopular decision.

Johnston, who is active in the Haines Woman’s Club, said it’s becoming evident to her that “public service is no longer anything people want to do.” That’s evident in the decline of interest in service clubs like the Pioneers of Alaska and Elks, she said. “Our volunteers are going away or they’re approaching volunteering differently. It’s getting harder and harder to get people to serve on boards and clubs. I was pretty busy in my day. I still am.”

Johnston said she’d never run for office. “You put a target on your back when you run for office. It takes a certain kind of person. I know what it’s all about. It’s a thankless job. I’m happy staying home and out of the public eye.”