Government too small if it doesn't welcome diverse points of view

Posted: Friday, October 04, 2002

There's nothing like an election to give residents a different perspective on the place we call home.

Take the Kenai Peninsula's fiscally conservative image, for example.

Outsiders could have been given the impression from Tuesday's election results that voters here are of the "tax-and-spend" ilk.

But there's another way to view the passage of bonds for Seward Middle School and improvements to the central peninsula landfill: Residents aren't cheap. They don't mind paying for necessities -- including education and garbage disposal. They just want to be sure their hard-earned money isn't going to frills.

Failure to pass the so-called "grocery tax" exemption also debunks the myth that residents just want a free ride. Failure of that sales tax initiative provides some proof that residents don't mind paying their own way -- especially since the borough's sales tax goes to education.

Even though none of the races in Tuesday's election was a "squeaker," it's still hard to get excited about the results when only about 26 percent of the voters within the borough cared enough to cast ballots.

What kind of mandate do borough and city officials have when an issue is decided by, say, 13 percent of those eligible to vote?

Such a poor turnout raises more questions than it answers: Are people apathetic or just content to let others decide their future? Do they believe all is well so there's no need to get involved or are they so disgusted they want nothing to do with the system? Do they believe all the candidates would do a good job or none of them? Do they believe their vote doesn't count? What could get them to change their minds that it does? Are they not connected enough to the place where they live to get involved? If that's the case, what could improve the connection? If people feel that disconnected from local government -- which really does affect their lives in numerous ways -- how can they ever become interested in state or national government? Do they believe they don't know enough about the issues to cast an educated vote? What could change that?

There are no easy answers. But certainly such a poor election turnout flies in the face of how we like to think of our community: involved, generous, committed and caring, a place where individuals matter and make a difference. Low voter turnout suggests none of that. Surely, the voting booth provides the perfect opportunity for individuals to make a huge difference in their community. It's difficult to understand why more people don't take advantage of that opportunity.

Maybe, however, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley offered some insight into the dilemma when he spoke to a Clarion reporter late Tuesday night, after winning re-election to another three-year term: "Since the Clarion endorsed (Rep. Ken) Lancaster, I guess you can get your comments from him," before hanging up.

Ouch. We've encountered sore losers before, but sore winners? What gives?

Could it be that while peninsula officials are big on a diverse economy, they don't necessarily welcome diverse viewpoints? Is that why so many residents stay away from the polls?

Are some elected officials so smug with their positions that they also are comfortable enough to say "it's my way or the highway," in so many words, to those who might see things a different way? When borough residents don't agree with Mayor Bagley should they expect a snub or some reduced level of borough services?

We hope not.

While "smaller government" is a vogue theme, government that doesn't have room for diverse opinion, that

doesn't include all the people, is way too small -- in all the wrong ways.

Tuesday's participation at the polls would indicate local government is failing to include a large portion of borough voters. Ultimately, changing that can only result in better, more representative government -- at all levels. Government that's big enough to respectfully include a diversity of viewpoints and not take differences of opinion personally should be the goal.

Anything less than that is not only small, it's also petty.

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