Small towns struggle to find enough candidates
By TAMMY WEBBER, Associated Press
CEDAR POINT, Ill. (AP) - Michael Mahar was the big winner in this month's village election, but it had nothing to do with his popularity. He was the only candidate on the ballot.
He soon had to start calling friends and neighbors in this northern Illinois hamlet of about 260 to find anyone willing to accept an appointment to the other four village commission seats, including mayor.
"It kind of surprised me a little bit" that nobody else ran, said Mahar, who was appointed to the commission two years ago and sees potential in this speck of a place with two taverns, a post office that's slated for closure and no stoplights. "I love this little town and the people here."
Cedar Point's predicament is hardly unique. At election time, small towns and villages across the country find they have more open seats than people interested in running for office.
The candidate shortage affects everything from park and library boards to town councils. Theories abound about why: burnout among longtime office holders, young families too pressed for time - perhaps even an eroding sense of community.
It's not exactly the founding fathers' idea of representative democracy.
"We have denigrated politics so much ... that what used to be sort of a religion of civic duty no longer exists," said Curtis Gans, founder of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. "We essentially don't have the same feeling among citizens that they have a duty to vote, a duty to participate or a duty to lead."
Whatever the reason, scores of Illinois communities had no candidates for dozens of open seats during the April 5 election. In Maple Park, about 60 miles west of Chicago, two places on the village board were open but only one person ran. No one sought any of the five open seats on the library district board.
In the village of Harvel, about 70 miles northwest of St. Louis, two buddies were elected as write-in candidates after discovering nobody filed to run for three open seats.
And in Chippewa County, Wis., several towns had open seats with no candidates - a problem that has worsened in recent years, said Rod Stetzer, a longtime reporter at The Chippewa Herald.
As a result, incumbents who wanted out often "get sucked back in," like in the Wisconsin city of Bloomer, where one incumbent received write-in votes in two different wards.
"That works well except when people die or move," Stetzer said.
Some people may fear being strapped with responsibilities that could be too time-consuming or difficult to shed, said David Fluegel, a community program specialist at the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota-Morris.
"In a larger city, an issue comes up, people roll up their sleeves and get it taken care of. Then they go back to living their lives," Fluegel said. "In smaller towns, there's issue after issue, and their sleeves are rolled up all the time."
In Harvel, Gilbert Merkel II gave up his seat as village trustee to run as a write-in candidate for mayor when nobody else wanted the job. But he doesn't blame the older council members, some of whom have served for decades.
"Board members end up doing maintenance work on the water system and in the spring they go out and pick up sticks and branches," said the 42-year-old who drives heavy equipment at a coal mine and owns a seamless gutter business. "I think bringing in some younger guys might be a little better."
His friend, Garrett Fuchs, 28, also decided to run as a write-in candidate for one of two open trustee seats - nobody ran for the other one - because he thinks the sleepy village of 225 could use more activities, including his pet project: a barbeque cook-off.
"The council only meets once a month. It's a small town. It's not like it's going to be stressful," said Fuchs, a farmer who moved to Harvel two years ago. "The way I look at it, if you're on (the council), you get your way before anybody else does."
Ben Winchester, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, said the problem seems to be growing at least in part because Americans - especially in rural areas - increasingly have to choose between serving on local boards and commissions or participating in an explosion of other community groups such as parent-teacher associations or bicycling clubs.
In Minnesota, for example, he found that 1 in every 24 people in rural areas would have to serve just to fill all the leadership posts.
"Fewer and fewer people are running because of changes in how people want to be involved," said Winchester, who specializes in migration patterns and leadership in rural areas.
Young parents, for example, might want to be part of their children's activities or help the schools, rather than serve on a village council or mosquito abatement board.
And once they're on a board, it can be difficult to leave.
Barb Hesse served as clerk in the rural Minnesota township of Framnas for 16 years without a ballot challenger before finally deciding a few years ago that she wanted to move on to other interests. Her fellow board members laughed and told her to find a replacement first.
"To tell you the truth, I thought I had served my term long enough. I did my civic duty," said Hesse, who works as an administrative specialist at the Center for Small Towns. "It's easy to let somebody else do it if you're not dissatisfied with how things are going."
Al Davis, who has lived in Cedar Point for 30 years, said most residents probably didn't even realize that four of the five commission members weren't running because "you kind of take for granted it's going to be the same people."
Gary Buckley didn't seek re-election this year after 20 years on the commission. He wasn't surprised when nobody else wanted his seat, explaining that the community "likes to solve all problems at the post office during the coffee klatch hour."
"They don't want to take on responsibilities and be the bad guy in the town," said Buckley, who as head of finances for the village has to threaten to shut off people's water if they don't pay their monthly bills. "They would rather sit on the sidelines and watch you jump in, and then criticize."
He's agreed to stay on if Mahar wants him, but when his next term is up, that will probably be the end.
"It's time for some of the younger people to step up," he said.
Winchester, the Minnesota researcher, said rural communities need to find a way to recruit younger people to serve, "otherwise we are going to hit that kind of tipping point where, who is going to end up running our towns?"
In Hawley, Mass., population 325, not a single candidate filed for any of the eight open seats last year. But it wasn't for lack of interest; potential candidates just didn't want to drive around and collect the required number of signatures, said Virginia Gabert, the town's administrative assistant. Instead, they simply ran as write-in candidates.
Even so, many people have been in office "for years and years and years" without a challenger, she said.
"When people grumble about how one of the officers does their job, my response is, 'Then run for office,'" Gabert said. "But they don't want to do that. We could definitely use some new energy and perspective, but you have to find that person who has the time and willingness to serve the town."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)