Clarence Fanto: A scarcity of candidates big concern


LENOX -- What if they gave an election and no one ran?

Fortunately, we're not at that point yet as town election season revs up. Some communities can count on vigorous campaigns -- in Stockbridge, to cite one example, a three-way contest is shaping up for a Select Board seat.

Countywide, the entire state delegation is up for re-election in November: Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and Reps. Gailanne Cariddi, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Paul Mark, and William "Smitty" Pignatelli. As of this past week, there were no announced opponents, though the deadline to submit nomination papers is still a month away.

On the local level, with elections coming in May and June, it's an uphill battle to attract citizen-volunteers to run for unpaid town government posts.

Lenox has no contested races and no candidates for two vacancies on the Planning Board, a vital gatekeeper that closely scrutinizes development projects large and small. As a last resort, the Selectmen could appoint two willing residents to those positions.

The talk in Town Hall is that citizens are shying away from time-consuming positions that often leave them vulnerable to unwarranted, personal attacks from a few vocal, disgruntled critics.

While the town has had its share of recent controversies -- notably, the Kennedy Park Belvedere flap and the failed "Lenoxology" marketing campaign -- the current hard-working Select Board has been managing town affairs effectively, holding the fort until the new town manager, Christopher Ketchen, arrives full-time on April 7.

The dearth of candidates accompanies a distinct downward trend in voter turnout countywide. Apathetic, cynical citizens who have tuned out government and politics get an annual scolding in this space around this time of year.

There's a growing belief that many, if not most politicians are incompetent, possibly corrupt, beholden to special interests and therefore undeserving of holding public office.

Prolonged partisan gridlock in Washington and a series of disillusioning revelations in Boston only fuel voters' disgust.

In its final year, the Patrick administration has presided over one fiasco after another.

The partial list of shame includes questionable casino gambling and medical marijuana licensing procedures, website breakdowns at the Massachusetts Health Connector and the Division of Unemployment Assistance, as well as shocking and scandalous ineptitude at the Department of Children & Families. Then there are the examples of lawmakers who have been imprisoned, fined or fired for crimes and corruption.

Just three days ago, the state Senate and House of Representatives turned the bill for a gradual, long-overdue minimum-wage increase, tied to business-friendly reforms of the unemployment insurance system, into a fumbled political football.

According to published reports in Boston, Democratic leaders sabotaged, presumably temporarily, their own House Speaker Robert DeLeo's proposal through parliamentary maneuvers. DeLeo's bill calls for a slow-motion minimum-wage spike to $10.50 an hour by 2016, 50 cents an hour less than the version approved months ago by the state Senate.

"It is disappointing that the Senate is playing parliamentary politics with an issue that is so fundamentally important to workers," said state Rep. Thomas Conroy, D-Wayland, the House chairman of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee. "This is insider petty politics at its very worst, and it's happening at the expense of working families in Massachusetts."

These circus antics surely turn off voters, and who can blame them?

State Rep. Pignatelli has a more benign theory for the reluctance to serve in local Town Halls.

"It's not complacency," he told me, "but maybe a sign of the times. People are so busy with the economy being what it is, working multiple jobs. The elected leaders we have today have done a good job, so there's always a view that maybe people are happy."

But the lack of contested races in Lenox is discouraging, he acknowledged, considering the town's long history of political activism.

"We desperately need to find a way to motivate people to run for office," said Lenox Selectman Channing Gibson, "and to take on some of these volunteer positions that are so crucial to the development of the town and its future. I'm concerned."

Gibson's cites prevailing wisdom that "there have been so many contentious issues in town government in the Berkshires over the past few years that people are skittish. ... Giving up the time these days is difficult, with two working parents in a family."

Emphasizing that the problem is countywide, Gibson listed Sheffield, Egremont, New Marlborough, Great Barrington and Lee among the communities where controversy has bedeviled elected officials. I'd add Hinsdale, for obvious reasons, and Peru, where an industrial wind-farm proposal has enraged many residents.

Lack of contests on the ballot depresses already-low voter turnout even further, resulting in "very few people trying to run the town and they don't even have a huge mandate behind them," Gibson pointed out. "It's troubling."

As he put it, voter participation is crucial "if people want to have a voice on how much they're going to pay in property taxes and how their taxes are spent."

Point well taken, but it seems to fall on deaf ears for a majority of residents up and down the county.

Perhaps some clues will emerge during the Distinguished Lecture series at the Lenox Library this afternoon at 4, where Pignatelli, Downing and Lenox Select Board Chairman David Roche will discuss the perils, pitfalls and potential of state and local government.

"In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, the eminent French historian, in his 1835 book, "Democracy in America."

The way things look, especially in Boston and Washington, we must be a rather undeserving bunch. But here in our hometowns, we have a grass-roots opportunity to reverse the tide, if only we seize the day.

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