Friday, May 21, 2010

Election 2010 Apathy and Politics - Randy's opinion

I have heard various accounts of what happened on May 8th. Each one has its merits. However, most skirt the real issues by just calling the turnout “apathy”. One person characterized the 92% no-show as the "shame of America". From what I observed, the lack of turnout has numerous reasons that could collectively be called apathy. Many residents here believe the local government is complicated and beyond their available time and effort. Why vote on something that you don’t really understand, especially when things seem to be OK? We have had this problem ever since I moved here and long before. Apathy is just “leave it to the others to determine”.  If anything has changed since we became a township, we have a much better voting turnout than we did before, but the quality of the turnout may not have been so great. The turnout in my precinct was probably the highest ever, but not good enough to make a difference.

I’ve heard this question - "who knows what is right anyway?" And in some cases - "I don't even know what directors do! Do they have job descriptions?" Then there is the other simple perspective - "I go vote for someone I know, but I have no idea what the issues are. I trust the person, not the words." Personally, I understand both viewpoints. As a voter, I have been in both places. Circumstances around an election can create a feeling of ignorance to many and discourage people from coming to the polls, but that does not adequately describe what happened.

There were basic politics not too difficult to understand in this election. One candidate sought his position through one issue, thinking that issue was significant enough to get attention, and his solution would get him a position on the board. Nope. That does not generally work. The public was leery. Crime and policing seemed overstated anyway. There were other candidates who did not clearly set themselves apart from the incumbents; change is usually needed to take a position away from an incumbent. My team thought we had a good shot at Robb, because of his attendance and voting history, along with a solid issue platform which would have retained the waterway strategies of TCID for tourism and commercial expansion, but at a much lower cost. None of that seemed to matter, as it turned out, due to apathy and personal loyalty. Then there was a third person who entered the contest the same day as I did. She was endorsed by what I call the “anti” group of people. I am not an anti-establishment type of person; I am just a resident who wants to have an affordable quality lifestyle. I know how to get it done and why one needs to do it. The fourth candidate was not seriously running, so he was not on our radar.

It is tough for the working resident to sort out the issues and be able to make an informed decision on them. In this election, the voter had significant information provided by The Villager and the League of Women Voters, in addition to candidate websites and literature paid for by candidates, but many residents were not even aware of them. Unfortunate to challengers, the safe position for many voters is to vote for incumbents. After all, they have the "insights" into how things are run and have a great deal of knowledge and contacts, right?  Actually - wrong! Can you blame the voters? Yet there could be significant consequences from that attitude. Status quo through incumbent support eventually leads to a decay of living quality and lost opportunities for improvement. In this case, leaving it to others holds fast to the commercial-centric doctrine in lieu of residential needs. Consequences of this doctrine are not seen for the moment, but when the time comes, they will become evident. Then it is too late. Remember the stock market? Despite all the communication attempts, our residents generally remain an uninformed public.

Leaders of the community have a job to do in order to get more voters to participate, but that would not serve them well. They need to educate the public in a way that is clear and short, not in the terms of those seeking deep understanding, but that is not going to happen. Many of us question the status quo, but many also defend it as a safety net. A candidate's challenge is to gain voter confidence, so that the voter will truly listen. I understand that. I dealt with it daily when I was trying to describe my position on issues during the election. The more depth one wants to know, the more difficult it becomes to get the point across. The bottom line is that the public wants to elect candidates it can trust to make the right decisions for it, never mind the issues. That becomes the psychology of endorsements. What I call "limelight advertising" is reality in the eyes of many. Focus on the people around the candidate instead of the person. That hides the candidate's capabilities and presents an image rather than a person. It is also a social issue, blinding to the eyes of those who are not interested in local issues. It takes the common resident to vote in order to make a difference.

I felt most issues were simple rather than the reverse. Spending too much, wasteful spending, the need to have better alternative and contract selection criteria, the need to measure better, and last but perhaps more important than anything else, the absolute need for a director to tend to the business of the township instead of being absent from decision discussions and voting. Some people argued that work conducted behind the scenes of the township board meetings was more important than attendance at board meetings. I strongly disagree. Government should be transparent and arguments visible to the public. Otherwise those working in the invisible background should not claim any responsibility for successes. The evidence of performance is at the board meeting when one discusses a proposal and casts a vote. That participation could also be evident in open discussions with the public, but that is rarely seen in local politics. We do have town hall meetings for this purpose, but they are not sufficiently leveraged to affect many projects. Hot resident issues can be heard at these meetings, but they are not very frequently discussed with residents. I conclude that the Board of Directors remains a closed door operation to most of us, with political influence constantly used to gain support for individual ideas and perspectives behind the scenes. As long as that happens, we lack diversity in decision making, and our money is inadvertently channeled into pet projects. That was evident in the strategic planning exercise. Residents were not invited to participate in those proceedings, but the budget is justified on the outcome of that process.

So what happened out there on the 8th? I witnessed three groups of residents. (1) Those who feel like they don't have sufficient exposure to the government in The Woodlands or have no interest in local issues. These folks normally do not vote in local elections. This group constitutes at least 50% of the registered voters. (2) Family life comes first - hey it was Saturday. During the early voting there were homework assignments, getting home late, leaving early, and the old 50+-hour work week. No time for voting. This group is also very large and comprises most of the remaining 92% no-shows. (3) The voters – 8% of the registered voters who are oftentimes die-hard Americans, involved in local issues, appreciating the opportunity to speak out, and selecting the candidates who they deem best to serve the community. They are exercising their American privilege to choose.

In the 8% who did vote, I can think of six categories. (1) Status quo - give me an incumbent. I am afraid to change; (2) First on the ballot; (3) Loyalty: I know the person, have organizational ties, or I am from the candidate’s village; (4) Name recognition: I have heard of the person; (5) Issue-centric: based on ideals, desire for change, or values; and (6) Duty:  I am supposed to vote. Research often occurs at the polling location for these people. I believe the majority of the 8% group did their homework and were prepared to cast their ballot on arrival at the polls, but most of them voted personal loyalty for at least one candidate. If one looks at the voting demographics, I suspect the median age of voters was very high relative to the median age of the registered voter community.

What did the candidates do to get voters to the polls and vote for them? Money buys votes. There is no doubt about it. With money, you can also claim about anything you want. You have name broadcasting power. You can buy the biggest, the most, and the labor to get your message to the population. If you are an incumbent, you can claim virtually anything that went right when you occupied the position, to be your personal accomplishment. If you did not vote against it in an open meeting, then you are safe. You can also buy a following of people. If you have organizational power, you can influence your people's role and support from within the organization, including financial support.

Standing out in the hot sun earns votes. Being the last voice or image a voter sees before going into the voting booth is highly valued by the candidates. Being on location to greet them is appreciated by voters. I guess that depends though. I felt that the “hawking” done by candidates at the early convenience election location was frankly distasteful. Many voters chose not to be bothered and parked where campaigners were not allowed. The hawking had no value in attracting voters to the polls, but possibly helped to persuade them to cast their votes for some candidates. I was one of the few who preferred to go house to house and ask people to come out and vote. Calling friends brings loyal supporters to the polls. Going door-to-door educates the public. A personal “please vote” goes a long way.

Some of the things I heard occurring behind the scenes of this election made me bristle. Politics are not exactly ethical, you know. Candidates can be ethical, but their people may not. Signs were stolen out of yards for example under the cover of darkness in apparent attempts to remove advertising of targeted candidates. There were even reports of coerced contributions of skilled labor. Some activities by “supporters” disappointed me and some advertisement falsehoods disappointed me. There was no avenue to contest those claims except to spend more money.

In this election, residents were blasted by propaganda in every media possible. Many did not want to be blasted, so they turned it all off, throwing away the newspapers, and not answering or ignoring the calls. I heard "enough already" several times. I sure felt that way myself. "Another d*^# call from a machine!" How is it that a candidate can use a machine to call your home numerous times when you are on the national no-call list anyway? Is that ethical? Is it breaking the law? Also, why would anyone call from a church when that is against IRS regulations? Why did I get a call from Tommy Williams? Why did I get a call from Kevin Brady? Politicians were actually advertising themselves on someone else's campaign contributions. Maybe robo calls should have said "This has been a paid political advertisement for Tommy Williams and Ed Robb by the campaign committee for Ed Robb."  Why would anyone spend so much money anyway for a non-paying job? Ego? Issue? Ideal? Fun? Experience? Why? I am a voter and a stakeholder in this government, so I ask these questions. Don’t you? What is the motivation and why do certain political figures want to have a certain candidate in office, especially in light of that person’s past performance? Some people have connected the dots and made their own calculated conclusions.  Advertising can be informative and appreciated, but the repeated immersing of people in it is not.

Personally, I had one reason to run for office. I believe what has occurred on the board is not exactly right. That was exemplified by the all out campaign spending to maintain control of the waterway spending strategies and other projects. I bet there were some people who would have raised $100,000 and spent it, if they thought that was necessary to reach their goal. I draw parallels with the spending of our taxes. That leads me to think there is big money in getting all those people into office. Doesn’t it to you?

Look back at who endorsed the candidates and start asking yourself some of these questions. Politics here appears to run much deeper than any concerns about The Woodlands itself. Those currently in office are not suspected of neglecting township business in my mind, but I know the job can be done better at a lower cost. Government watch groups are chasing the money trails to check if there is foul play with money. They believe through those connections that we have an under-the-rug political machine operating here. They insinuate that some of the people on the board have personal agendas. The suspicion is raised to a much higher level when one looks under the umbrella of endorsements and favors. It is not about the quality of living in The Woodlands.  One person compared it to Chicago. That was because of the apparent money trail and endorsements. Well, let's see, a church where candidacy was announced from the pulpit without equal time to others (perception: my organization, I can do what I want). This raised the question of church vs. state in the minds of many. If one would compare the voting records against the church's membership role, some say the outcome would be obvious. I do not plan to conduct that study, but perhaps some organization or watchdog group should.

I have heard these thoughts from several sources, some from activists and others from long time residents. Several people say they are afraid to speak out, because they fear that they will not be heard in other matters, or their business relationships would be impaired. Influence and power drive them to be quiet. I am not one of them. My strategy is open and much easier to understand. We need to focus on one thing here – Be a great place to affordably live, that serves the entire family and community. Everything else takes a back seat.

For me, my values stand with those who originally came here, who developed the feeling of a hometown, those who walked to the store, even at night to get a gallon of milk for breakfast, in the darkness of the tall tree shadows. That is the way it was when I moved here, and that is the way I seek it to be in the future. Some people say we should not be out at night. Bah humbug. Quality and security is not defined in that way. Quality is defined and measured within certain focus points, namely safety, amenities, mobility, pollution, affordability, services, livable homes and our natural forest. Excellence in mobility gives us the complete freedom to move about anytime of the day or night. If you make the place not livable, then it is not the community we have known with the advertised values seen in marketing.

Residents missed an opportunity to make a difference on May 8th.  Other opportunities will come along as life goes on. My hummingbirds returned to the yard five days after the election; I am going to double the number of grandchildren this year with my son’s announcement on Election Day. Yes, there are better things to do, but I do want to thank my supporters for their confidence in me.  A person can only offer to help. Some force it down the public. I will not. The community will likely continue to flourish but at a higher price than necessary. It will be a community of distinction, but maybe not one of quality. We continue to grow, but we are beginning to see deterioration, and we are only two years into the township. Now seven directors will manage your tax money. One of them was absent from voting for 37% of the decisions for the past several months. His loyal following and political allies voted for him to be on the board. 92 % of our registered voters remained quiet and allowed that to happen. If you are one of those quiet ones, will you allow it to happen again next year and the year after? What will it take to get you to help drive your own destiny?

1 comment:

WahooMom said...

The voter turnout was truly disappointing and perplexing. Perhaps everyone got used to George Mitchell and his crew taking such good care of the community that residents felt complacent. Unfortunately, times have changed and voters must hold officials accountable. There was a lot at stake in this election, as shown by the funds and endorsements thrown behind certain incumbents. In short, the Board of Directors now acts as our city council. Its no more complicated than that. This leaves certain organizational gaps such as the lack of a zoning commission or zoning ordinances, department of inspections and permits, independent legal department, a standardized notification and bid process, and more importantly, a police department. Zoning ordinances have guidelines in which officials are required to notify residents of development and land use changes. This notification provide residents an opportunity for input. Apparently there are no such guidelines in place in The Woodlands. Without these controls, our Board of Directors has much more power than a city council. It is for these reasons it is imperative we vote and look at the motives behind each candidate. We must think about our future and whether we incorporate. I like to make my own decisions so I vote. Without voters at the polls, there can be no accountability.