It was the morning after Johnson City’s April 23, 2013, municipal election.
I was reading the results of the dismal turnout for that election when I answered a call from a young woman who suggested that the Press “investigate” problems with the city school system.
I asked her: “Exactly what kind of problems?”
She informed me of a few things that have disturbed her, including the fact her child’s teacher made her daughter and other students in her class pick up cigarette butts as part of an Earth Day exercise. The woman said she got no satisfaction when she lodged complaints with school officials about this activity.
“The school board just doesn’t listen,” she said.
I asked if she had spoken directly to a member of the Board of Education.
I asked if she knew the names of any of the members of the Board of Education.
There was a short pause before she replied: “No.”
I then asked if she knew there had been an election for the school board and the City Commission held just the day before. There was a longer pause before she told me she was not aware of the city election.
How could that be possible?
“There were campaign signs out. Maybe not many, but enough to at least stir some interest,” I said. “We’ve had plenty of stories and ads in this paper about the city election.”
It might have been understandable if she was disinterested in politics and simply chose to ignore the election, but that was not the case.
This woman, by her own admission, claimed to be completely unaware that a city election was even going on.
“Sir, I’m really busy working and raising my children,” she told me. “I don’t have time to keep up with such things.”
I’m sure she was a conscientious mother, and I’m certain she had a lot on her plate in those days juggling work and family life. The same is true for a lot of other folks, but they find time to keep up with their local government.
If you are going to complain about how unresponsive your local officials are, you should at least know the names of those who are ignoring your concerns.
I’ve recounted that phone call many times in recent years. It occurred back in the day when Johnson City’s municipal elections were held in the spring.
It was a time when municipal races were on a ballot all to themselves.
That changed when voters amended the city’s charter in 2014 to move the elections from the April date to November. The city’s first fall election in 2016 coincided with one of the most surprising presidential contests in decades.
This year’s races for City Commission and Board of Education also promise to memorable. The Nov. 3 ballot not only includes the race for the White House, but contests for Congress and the the state General Assembly.
Moving the Johnson City election from the spring to the fall has saved the city some money on the cost to hold municipal elections by piggybacking on state and federal elections. There is also hope it will increase voter turnout.
There was pushback to moving Johnson City’s elections to the fall from some of the city’s entrenched establishment. They feared the passions and partisanship of the November ballot would cloud local races.
They argued the national debate on divisive matters like abortion, gun control and immigration could filter down to municipal races and distract from a meaningful dialogue on important local issues, such as property taxes, public works and school funding.
Those critics had a point. Elected officials have enough problems to address at the local level without weighing in on domestic policy and foreign affairs.
Even so, Black Lives Matter has legitimately opened the door to questions about how we should be treating all citizens in this county when it comes to policing, health and educational issues.
It’s a national debate on issues that touch every community with a police department or school system.
Law enforcement, schools and public health are essential local functions. Candidates for municipal offices that have a say in how those services are provided should expect to face scrutiny from the voters.