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Free press - key to a free society (07/23/2006)
By Frances Edstrom

In November, we'll have choices to make, we'll be the "people" that our founders envisioned when they established this democracy of ours. Whatever it is that prompts those who run for political office, especially on the local level, I am grateful for it.

Some office-seekers in local elections have higher political aspirations, and see the publicity (even negative publicity gets them name recognition) as money in the political bank, if not in their pockets. We can all name former local officeholders who have progressed to the next political level, or who hope to. But that is a small minority.

Compensation for local officeholders is not great. The county commissioners draw the most, some making, for what is a part-time position, the equivalent of a regular guy's full-time salary. City Council members' compensation falls in the middle " enough to make it pay to attend meetings. And way, way back in the pack are the school board members, who draw a pittance, an honorarium, as it were.

But by far the most interest by officeseekers seems to be in a school board seat, which would seem to indicate that they aren't after it for the money.

So that leaves us still wondering why these people are willing to place their self-esteem on the line. It's no doubt wonderful to win an election, to feel the public approbation of one's worth. But it has to be devastating, at least initially, to lose " what did I do wrong? I wonder if even my dog likes me?

My guess is that a poll of these earnest candidates would reveal that they are seeking public office because they want to "make a difference." Usually what that means is they want to make a change in the way local government works, because they are not happy with the status quo.

A cynic might point out a couple of pitfalls on the way to making a difference.

One, about the only people who can make change unilaterally are the Pope and a bunch of third world despots. Canny officeholders understand this, and learn to use the system to make what are usually only minor shifts in public policy. If they are really good at it, they rise above being a mere representative of the people and become " ta da " politicians. However, most local government is filled with well-meaning people who want to make a difference, but simply don't know how. They are easily co-opted by wily operatives in the administration, and spend their tenure feeling included in the vaunted inner circle, rubber-stamping policies shaped not of the people, for the people or by the people, but by public functionaries who run a relentless separate agenda.

How does an officeholder avoid being drawn into the inevitable riptide that is out there in pubic service land just waiting to grab him and draw him far from his intended destination?

It's simple. Really. Communicate with the people you are elected to represent. When government is open and aboveboard, it is more likely to move in the direction desired by the majority of the citizens.

This is not what you will hear from some of your fellow representatives and from the less scrupulous administrators. They will tell you that oversight from the public merely slows down the progress of the political agenda. They may be right. But what should be our overriding principle " democracy or a secret agenda?

I was appalled not too long ago to hear a then-City Council person crow that the council had been able to push through a very controversial zoning vote because "we all agreed not to play it out in the media." In other words, decisions were made in secret and information was withheld from the public eye.

There are many communication avenues available to those in office, from the Internet to door-to-door visits. We'd like to remind the winners in the November elections that the Winona Post is one of those media that serves in a free society as a way to educate your constituents " as well as to give them a forum to communicate their desires to you.

A free press is the key to a free society. Principled public officials who see themselves as conduits for the voice of the public are the key to a strong democracy. Together, we can forge a better life for each citizen. 


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