Apathy keeps small town posts unfilled

May 10, 1997


Staff Writer

An empty ballot for the Mont Alto, Pa., town election, may be a symptom of a larger problem in the Tri-State area - candidate apathy.

In small towns, blank spaces on the ballot are not uncommon. When candidates do come forward, they often run unopposed.

In Mont Alto, the May 20 primary and Nov. 4 general elections will be decided by write-in votes. If there are not enough of those to fill the mayor and seven council seats, a judge will appoint people.

"That's scary. You don't think of that kind of stuff happening in your town, but it certainly could," said Boonsboro Mayor Charles F. "Skip" Kauffman.


Although extreme cases like Mont Alto's are rare, a general lack of interest in town governments is not, said Keith Hite, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors.

The problem is not only candidate apathy, but voter apathy, he said.

It is little wonder people aren't willing to serve when they're being asked to take on so much responsibility for so little compensation.

"You've got to be an environmentalist. You've got to be a planner, you've got to be a lawyer. You've got to be a crying towel," Hite said. "There's not a lot of fame and glory."

Elected officials in some towns, including Mont Alto, get no pay.

Others get a small stipend, anywhere from $30 a year for a Keedysville council member to $1,800 for the mayor of Boonsboro. Funkstown council members get a $29.28 deduction on their quarterly water bills.

Town elected officials make important decisions that affect people's day-to-day lives on issues like water, sewer and roads.

"It's easier to allow someone else to make these decisions," said Jim Peck, associate director of research for the Maryland Municipal League.

Some elected officials have to supervise employees. When there are no employees, elected officials end up taking care of paperwork and other minutia of town business.

The smallest towns seem to have the biggest problems.

In Orrstown, Pa., population 220, no one is running for tax assessor, constable and three of the four open council seats, said Jean Horst, administrative assistant in the Franklin County election office.

When there are fewer people to choose from, it is harder to find eligible people to serve, said Shelley Houk, director of research for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs.

About half the boroughs in Pennsylvania have fewer than 1,000 residents, she said.

But even relatively large small towns like Boonsboro, with a population of 2,445, occasionally have problems finding people to serve, said Mayor Charles F. "Skip" Kauffman.

"It depends on what's going on around town and the issues," said Kauffman, who has been mayor for nine years and involved in town government for 23 years.

Many people are unwilling to commit the great amount of time an energy it takes. Being mayor is like a second full-time job that he would not be able to do without his wife's support.

"It's a thankless job," said Funkstown Mayor Robert L. Kline, whose $35-a-month salary doesn't even cover the cost of gas. "You have to have a heart for the town."

But those who do get involved in town government often stay for the long haul.

Take the husband-and-wife team of Ronnie and Mary Beth Good of Hedgesville, W.Va., population 227.

He has been on the town council for 14 years. She has served for 12 years, the last 10 as town recorder.

On June 3, Mary Beth Good is running unopposed for mayor and her husband is running unopposed for town recorder. There are three people running for one open council seat.

Combined, their yearly salaries are $1,300.

"I've been here all my life and I'd just like to help the community," Mary Beth Good said.

Small-town mayors don't consider themselves politicians. Some elections, like Harpers Ferry's are non-partisan.

"I just think that it's the duty of every American to try service. Otherwise, we just kind of slide into dictatorships and a non-Democratic form of government," Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Mayor Walton "Kip" Stowell said.

It's not always easy.

"You have to have a rather thick skin because you're not going to please everybody," Stowell said.

But it is rewarding to make improvements to the town, he said. A historic town like Harpers Ferry gives the title a little more prestige.

Both Stowell and his counterpart in nearby Bolivar, W.Va., are running unopposed in next month's town elections.

"Either they're satisfied or they don't want the job," said Courtney, who has been Bolivar's mayor for 20 years.

Sharpsburg Mayor George Kesler, 72, wanted to back down from public service after serving 12 years on the council. But he decided to run for mayor last year because he didn't like the direction things were going.

"I'm a firm believer if you don't like what town government is doing, shut up or get involved," Kesler said.

Meanwhile, in Mont Alto, Council President Tom Lowson said he doesn't know why no one wants to run.

The current mayor and council will continue working on a number of projects including repairing streets, upgrading office computer software, updating the town's electric distribution system, preparing a police manual and finishing plans for a new maintenance building, he said.

Lowson said he would consider serving again if people write in his name, but he isn't going to campaign. The last year on the council has been fraught with too much turmoil, including four resignations.

"Rather than put myself out there, I would rather the people choose," he said.

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