Many municipalities lack candidates who want to run for office
By Jason Cato and Brian C. Rittmeyer
Published: Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
When two-term Avonmore Mayor Aileen Reid decided not to seek re-election this year, she thought for sure someone would run for the office.
But that didn't happen, and the ballot before voters on Tuesday will be blank.
“It is a huge commitment. I know myself that, many times, I don't feel that I'm giving it all I can. I can put in 40 hours a week just searching for grants and still not be done,” she said.
It's a problem facing nearly one in five municipalities in the seven-county Pittsburgh region of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland.
Of the 434 municipal elections for mayor, council, supervisor or commissioner, 78 municipalities, about 18 percent, have no candidates or too few candidates running for available seats, Trib Total Media found.
In the Alle-Kiski Valley, 11 percent of those races have no candidates or a lack of them for the seats available. The problem is most pronounced in the valley's portion of Armstrong County, with 22 percent of races affected — for council in Applewold, Freeport, Manorville and North Apollo; and supervisor in Burrell, Cadogan and Gilpin
“That's a higher number than I would have thought,” said Dick Hadley, executive director of the Allegheny League of Municipalities. “It's becoming harder and harder to attract quality people to run for local office. And that's a shame, because local politics have a greater impact on everyday life than state or national politics.”
Armstrong County has the highest percentage of uncontested or under-contested core municipal races for mayor, council, supervisor or commissioner. A third of its municipalities have a candidate deficit. The lowest percentage is in Allegheny County, where about 10 percent of its 115 municipal elections don't have enough candidates.
In North Apollo, no names appear on the ballot for three council seats. Council President Eugene Burns said he forgot his term was up this year and is waging a write-in campaign to keep his seat.
It's a “sad state of affairs” that no one wants to run, said Burns, serving his second stint on council.
“I wish people would take more interest,” he said. “I tell them to come to the meetings. Most of the time it's not that bad.”
Most of the core municipal races examined are in some of the region's smallest municipalities. Sixty-three municipalities have fewer than 1,000 residents; six have fewer than 100.
In Armstrong County, Applewold's 2010 population was just 310. No one is running for a two-year term on council, and there are only two candidates for three four-year seats.
“It's like trying to get volunteer firemen and everything else today. Everyone is too busy, and no one wants to do anything. No one wants to volunteer,” said Applewold Councilman Mark Feeney, a candidate for a four-year seat.
University of Pittsburgh political communication professor Gerald Shuster, a former Kittanning councilman, said serving on local governing boards can be “thankless,” given the amount of work required and potential criticism.
“It would be nice to say, ideally, people do this as a public service,” he said, “but that's a pretty tough responsibility to assume whenever you see people on the street every day and the results of your votes or actions are paramount in their minds because it impacts them immediately.”
Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University, said she hopes growing discontent with national politics in Washington isn't hurting local governments.
“If anything, I see it as a call-to-arms for people to serve,” Brown said. “There really is a need for leadership in communities.”
Lacking candidates leaves those races open to write-in candidates, who can be elected to office with any number of votes, as long as they're the top vote-getter.
“You can win with one vote,” said Wendy Buzard, Armstrong County elections director.
That differs from the primary, where to earn a spot on the November ballot write-ins have to get at least the same number of votes as nominating petition signatures to have gotten on the primary ballot.
“We always have a lot of offices that don't have people that file the petitions. People are just lackadaisical about getting the paperwork and getting it done in time,” Buzard said.
Write-ins will delay knowing who won those races. “We're going to have a lot of letter writing to do after this election,” she said.
Henry Long tried to stage a primary write-in for Gilpin supervisor, but didn't get the minimum of 10 votes on one party to earn a spot on the ballot. He's now running a write-in for a four-year term, for which no candidates appear on the ballot.
Seeking elected office for the first time, Long says his experience in road construction would help the township.
“People need to show more interest in what's going on in their townships, boroughs or whatever. They need to attend meetings and find out what's going on,” he said. “I like to see people get involved, attend the meetings, bring stuff up that needs addressed, and be more involved in the community.”
If write-in votes do not work, governing bodies or vacancy boards can nominate candidates to serve until the next municipal election. If they cannot agree, the Court of Common Pleas can get involved. Home-rule charters spell out ways to fill vacancies.
Gilpin Supervisor Christine Pastva, who is unopposed for election to a two-year term, prefers officials be voted in rather than appointed.
“It should be the people speaking out, saying who they want to represent them, who they want to make the decisions,” Pastva said. “It should always be the residents.”
Most local elected officials go into office “cold,” some focused on one issue and lacking knowledge of their role, Shuster said.
Without qualified elected officials, communities can suffer, said Hadley, of the municipalities league.
The Local Government Academy, a non-partisan organization based in Pittsburgh's North Side, offers training for newly elected officials in Western Pennsylvania and resources to help municipalities promote development, environmental quality and intergovernmental cooperation.
An academy analysis found that of the nearly 1,700 people across the region running for local offices on Tuesday, about 60 percent are first-time candidates.
Municipalities that frequently resort to appointing public officials should question whether their government is too big, said Susan Hockenberry, the academy's executive director.
“I look at that as a good opportunity for good government,” she said. “If you're small and are having a problem filling the size of your government, you have the opportunity to change that in Pennsylvania. But we respect that's a decision that needs to be made locally.”
In North Apollo, Burns isn't worried about inexperienced people getting on council.
“I had to learn the ropes just like anybody else,” he said. “Sit back and learn, that's all you can do.”
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