There was only one truly contested race for a La Crosse Common Council seat this year.
Technically, there were two, but when one of the candidates announces he’s moving out of the district a week before the election, I think we can safely say it’s no longer contested.
I tried not to complain too much, because, hey, fewer council races means less work for me. As a general rule, I don’t cover uncontested races, mostly because people don’t really have a choice, and writing a story saying, “Here’s the person you’re voting for, like it or not,” doesn’t seem quite right.
But I honestly felt like it was a shame there were so many people running unopposed, even though they all seem like perfectly reasonable choices.
That lack of competition was at the forefront of council members’ minds this week when they decided to increase the pay for the people who follow them.
When you say the La Crosse Common Council voted on a raise for council members, it sounds like they’re just giving themselves more money, but as council president Martin Gaul so bluntly put it Thursday, “This is not about us.”
For one thing, the raise to a monthly salary of $700 for council members and $900 for the council president doesn’t take effect until 2021, which means anyone currently on the council needs to get reelected to benefit.
For another, the salary increase was meant to bring down barriers for people like single parents who want to serve, but couldn’t afford to pay for childcare for a few hours a couple evenings a week or take an hour off work to swing by the Board of Public Works Monday morning.
The increase was proposed by David Marshall and Jacqueline Marcou, who are both leaving the council this week due to other commitments, and wanted to make it a bit easier for people to be on the council and essentially work a part-time job where they’re always on call.
They were supported by council member Barb Janssen who was self-employed and spent years as a volunteer for the Grandview-Emerson Neighborhood Association when she was considering running two years ago. A big part of that consideration was whether she could afford to take time from her business to go to meetings and be as well-informed as possible while she makes decisions that affect people’s lives.
“I don’t do this for the salary, but it was critical that I could still make ends meet. I look at the constituents in my district and I consider myself fortunate for what I have and the business that I have, but many of them don’t have that option,” Janssen said.
Not that it was a unanimous decision. Council member Andrea Richmond correctly pointed out that what we want most out of a council member is a sense of civic duty.
As council member Philip Ostrem said — and I agree with him — “I don’t know that this is the solution all by itself.”
Council members have been recruiting candidates, but it’s hard to find someone to fill the seat and take the heat for unpopular decisions.
“This is not fun times at the circus,” Ostrem said. “A lot of people would reference this as a circus act, but it is not.”
As much as I’d like to lay the blame on people being selfish or lazy or too busy, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a Nieman Lab report published Tuesday that argued the decline of local newspapers has a part to play. The report by Joshua Benton, titled, “When local newspapers shrink, fewer people bother to run for mayor,” cites a couple scholarly journals, including the “Urban Affairs Review.”
As the paper says, “Newspapers have long been thought of as essential to the delicate fabric of democracy. In a well-functioning system, citizens need to be actively engaged in their government and aware of decisions made by their elected representatives. Newspapers are a means of citizen engagement, and this study provides evidence of the importance of this link.”
I am not under the delusion that people pick up the daily newspaper to see a story on downtown parking assessment districts or agreements laying out payment in lieu of taxes. It’s stuff that makes a difference, but it’s not exactly stopping you in your tracks when you scan the front page the way lightning striking a Sparta house does.
But when people pick up that paper to see what happened to that house in the next county over, they don’t stop there. They read about what their local council is up to and they stay informed.
While the studies haven’t proved causality, there certainly seems to be a connection.
Tim Kabat ran against 10 people in his first race in 2013 and was all geared up to face some opposition in 2017 only to find out no one was running against him. Maybe it’s a coincidence or a fluke, but just in case, subscribe to your local newspaper and give us money to give you information. (Not that I have anything against Kabat.)