Political transformation, one county at a time

Dec 11, 2018. Brown County Democrat – GUEST OPINION: Political transformation, one county at a time By TIM CLARK, guest columnist

Article posted at Brown County Democrat Facebook Page

Straight-ticket voting in the 2018 elections was reported by the Brown County Democrat to be the highest in the past 10 years where “56.7 percent of voters automatically voted for everyone on the ballot for their chosen party, and the majority — 65.5 percent of them — were Republicans.”

These results are not indicative of an effective political system. Given human nature, it is impossible for one political party to have all the best candidates.

The expected drama that will be associated with the 2020 elections may likely encourage more default straight-ticket voting for candidates running for state and national office. At the local (county) level, it’s much easier to meet and get to know a candidate (or the incumbent) and determine their capability and qualifications for a respective office.

A monopoly on political power reinforces the county government’s preference to support special interests in applying ad-hoc processes that do not result in achieving the best outcomes. This approach for leading change is not in the best interests of the county, country or the individuals involved in the process.

A common strategy within the county is to empower ad-hoc groups of unelected individuals to make major decisions by applying processes that, by design, cannot and will not produce the best outcomes. These ad-hoc groups create and lead projects with funding that is initially or later approved by elected officials. These projects often do not seek wide-scale community support and are not guided by county strategic, comprehensive and economic plans that are developed and continually improved with citizen input. Political parties can also be considered as ad-hoc groups that represent special (partisan) interests.

Examples of past and current projects — many of which proposed or involved a significant investment of tax dollars include the following: A unsuccessful application for an Indiana Stellar Grant that proposed major projects without countywide input and involvement; the Salt Creek Trail that, despite the original intent, is acquiring land through an enticement of inflated land prices and threat of condemnation; Bean Blossom sewers, where a solution was proposed before the problem was identified; a government-owned music venue led by local innkeepers that included a refusal by the commissioners and county council to hold public meetings to discuss the desirability and feasibility of the project; and a proposal for a new county government Justice Center without a thorough analysis of alternatives and identification of a compelling need to justify the new debt.

This situation, major decisions determined by the few, is not unique to Brown County. A study of federal policies using data over 20 years “compared what the public wanted to what the government actually did” and concluded that “the opinions of 90 percent of Americans have essentially no impact at all.” For more information, see “The Problem” at represent.us. This report led to media headlines throughout the world that suggested the U.S. was functioning as an oligarchy.

The U.S. political system was designed to be continually improved by “We the People” at the local level in pursuit of “a more perfect Union.” Achieving this aim requires that action produces results where everyone gains or at least, are not any worse off in the long-term. Although the aim (more perfect) was identified in the U.S. Constitution, we lack a common method, process and language that we can use in working together to achieve this vision.

Early in our country’s history, political parties emerged to identify and offer methods for identifying changes that result in improvement. George Washington, in his farewell address, warned against forming political parties but his advice was ignored by his immediate successors, John Adams (Federalist) and Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican). Adams won in 1796 and Jefferson in 1800. Political parties identify the variation on issues, but also contribute to divisiveness and suboptimal solutions. The fact is that everyone wins when optimal methods are applied in the pursuit of “more perfect.”

Social media, which includes Facebook, is an evolving and disruptive technology that can support the needed transformation to better methods and processes that should be welcomed by most citizens. Some people also prefer to maintain the status quo — no change needed.

At the county level of politics, name recognition and family reputation that is often linked to past generations are of significant political advantage. Name recognition along with party affiliation (Republican in this county) is often all that is needed to get elected. Communication is another challenge within the county. If citizens do not read the Brown County Democrat or follow issues on social media, they will not have knowledge of the issues. This lack of information can lead to a default vote where it is assumed that a respective party has your best interests in mind.

In the past, elected officials could vote without a concern that their name and reputation would be associated with any adverse consequences of their vote. With social media, officials, as well as the community, can be held responsible over the life cycle of a vote which becomes part of the documented history of the county. And, with social media, there is always the potential for a story to go “viral.”

Transformation is defined as a change that leads to sustained improvement. Political transformation can begin at the local (county) level. A simple change that voters can make that can result in significant improvement is to vote for and support the best local candidate regardless of political party affiliation. How does the candidate define “a more perfect” county? Do they understand the importance of planning? What do they identify as a priority? And what feedback do you need to determine that a change has led to an improvement?

Tim Clark of Brown County is a quality improvement practitioner, educator and author who specializes in the public sector. He is a certified quality auditor and has master’s degrees in strategic studies and public administration. He has volunteered for the past year as a member of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and has served on the Brown County Schools Strategic Planning Committee since 2016. He can be reached through the newspaper at newsroom@bcdemocrat.com.

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