Where have all the candidates gone?
You can measure the health of a democracy by the participation of both candidates and voters in elections. And judging by the dismal number of challengers in this year's city races, our community's civic health is seriously ailing.
Mayor Jimmy Weekley is facing just one opponent, who must certainly be considered a long-shot at this point. City Commissioners Carmen Turner and Tom Oosterhoudt are getting a free ride, with no one running against them. And no one challenged the three Utility Board members seeking reelection this year. The only real contest is in District 3, where three candidates are vying for the seat currently held by retiring City Commissioner Percy Curry.
And, unfortunately, this lack of candidates in important races is nothing new for Key West. Two years ago, City Commissioners Harry Bethel and Merilee McCoy were both "reelected" without facing a challenger. In fact, this was the second such election in a row for Commissioner McCoy, who is serving her second term without ever having received a single vote. So what's the story? It's certainly not that everybody is happy with our current local government. I hear more people than ever complaining about particular city commissioners, City Electric and city government in general. Something is keeping good citizens from getting involved.
One reason cited by a lot of would-be candidates is the fear of vicious personal attacks during the campaign a well-justified fear, as anyone who has followed city politics can attest. And the personal smears don't stop after the election. If anything, they get worse.
Another thing that discourages citizens from running for office is the insultingly small annual salary: $12,000 for the mayor and $10,000 for the other commissioners. While theoretically only part-time jobs, any commissioner really serving their constituents will put in way more than 40 hours per week. So anyone wishing to serve well as a commissioner must hold down an additional full-time job, be independently wealthy or be willing to go into serious debt.
This shortage of candidates is also directly tied to voter apathy, since candidates are drawn from the pool of voters. Certainly some of this disenfranchisement comes from a feeling that one vote cannot make a difference against the political clout of wealthy special interests, that everything has been settled in the back room and that city commission meetings are just a formality.
Another factor is our city's single-member voting district system, which makes commissioners other than the mayor accountable only to the voters in one district. This makes many voters feel that five members of the city commission couldn't care less about their needs.
The system also encourages commissioners to act only in the narrow interests of their district, to the exclusion of the best interest of the city as a whole allowing them to remain in office year after year regardless of the overall job they do.
If we want to resuscitate the civic life of our community, we must make public service more attractive to concerned citizens. A good start would be to admit the obvious and make the mayor and city commissioner jobs full-time positions with decent salaries.
And making commissioners accountable to every Key West voter would increase public confidence in city government and hopefully convince more concerned people to run for office.
Even so, we might still have elections in which no challenger steps forth. But even when incumbents are unchallenged in an election, their names should have to appear on the ballot if only to give voters the opportunity to vote "No."