Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney (Malheur Enterprise file)
That sigh of relief you heard last week was from a number of local elected officials. They watched the clock tick down to zero on the deadline to file for office. They all went home, knowing they had “won” because they will face no opponents.
Who are these winners? One is the area’s newest elected official, state Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale. Findley retired as Vale city manager in January and immediately had to order new business cards after his appointment as state representative. At the courthouse, County Commissioner Don Hodge, County Clerk Gayle Trotter, County Treasurer Jennifer Forsyth, District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe, Circuit Judge Lung Hung and Justice of the Peace Margaret Mahony all had to do just one thing to keep their public jobs – file for re-election.
What does this lack of contest mean for Malheur County? Sadly, it’s been an increasing trend here and across Oregon that citizens shy from public service. More particularly, they stay away from elective office. For the community, talented people are staying on the sidelines and not bringing their intellect, experience, and contacts to bear on Malheur County’s toughest challenges.
That starves the community of possible solutions – and leadership. The incentives for becoming a public official seem to have diminished. Anyone in elected office has stories to tell of the sharp criticism, name calling and nasty insults that come their way for trying to do their best. Social media has unleashed much of this, allowing people to launch attacks from their living rooms or dens. Those critics likely would never have to courage to speak in such tones if face-to-face with their targets.
All of that said, the certainty of re-election shouldn’t excuse these elected officials from being accountable. They won’t be tested or questioned on the campaign trail. They won’t have to make the case against a challenger for why they should keep the office keys. A prime value of any contested election, whether for the Legislature or a local road district, is that voters can kick the tires, so to speak, before they buy.
Those who are certain winners this season should still present their case to Malheur County voters. As a community, we remain challenged by drugs, poverty, immigration, housing and more. We still as a whole expect local government to operate frugally, spending what’s necessary to get the job done but not one dime more.
So, here are some questions all those running unopposed ought to answer for citizens. What are your top three accomplishments that made Malheur County a better place to live? What are the top three goals you have in the next term? How would you reach those goals and what good would they do for the people you serve? What service to the community do you hope to expand? What service do you think is time to trim? What steps would you take to help build the community’s trust in local government?
Local service groups, such as chambers of commerce, ought to provide the forum to get these answers. The officials-slash-candidates should propose, too, how they can answer to the public. — LZ