Column: Why so many council, board appointments?

By DON HEINZMAN

ECM PUBLISHERS

 

Elections matter.

If so why are we seeing a flurry of appointments to city councils and school boards?

It’s because appointing someone to a vacancy is an easy way out with little cost and there are no election campaigns.

The appointment process takes the decisions away from the voters and leaves it up to a board or council of from five to seven members.

There are some pitfalls with this process. There’s less accountability to the people who didn’t elect them. There’s a chance of cronyism, because the council could appoint a friend of the council, one they could manipulate, and worse, one vote they could be sure of in certain decisions.

It’s a good deal for the appointees. They don’t have to campaign and go door-to-door to hear the people’s views. There’s no campaign costs for the appointee.

For just showing an interest and willing to be interviewed, the appointee will get visibility and a salary.

This new rash of latest appointments is caused by people on boards and councils being elected to different offices. You’ll note there are special elections for vacant state legislative positions.

Appointments to offices are happening in Elk River, Lakeville, Mound, Princeton, the Anoka-Hennepin School District and the Bloomington School District.

This is not to suggest that appointees are not qualified; they are just coming to the table with neither a public mandate nor scrutiny.

No doubt they’ll fill the bill, because local government is supposed to be non-partisan.

There was concern in Elk River when the council announced that it chose the appointment route because it would save the election expense. It also added that probably there would be a small turnout, around 300 or so for the Ward 1 vacancy.

Some in the city argued that even a small turnout is better than a council of five members picking the council member, four of whom don’t live in Ward 1.

To Elk River’s credit, the council decided on a plan to involve the voters in Ward 1 before making the appointment. They’ve asked the local Citizens League to run a candidates forum on a Saturday morning where the candidates will be on display and answer questions.

The idea is to enable the residents of ward one to tell the council members whom they prefer. This is a model other cities should follow.

That’s better than the situation in the Bloomington school district, where it took eight rounds of voting to appoint a consensus pick, after half the board failed to appoint a former board member. Apparently, personal agendas and preferences got in the way of reaching an easy decision.

The real problem with the appointment process is the winner is not beholden to the voters of the district, but to the appointing body.

As they say, the democratic process is messy. Sometimes, it’s expensive and doesn’t always bring out a big turnout. But it lives up to the principle that this is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, unless the winner is appointed.

Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM and Sun Publications. Reactions to this and any other commentary printed on these pages are always welcome. Send to: peggy.bakken@ecm-inc.com.

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