Politics & Government

Who wants to help lead South Prairie? Nobody, it seems

For six months, officials tried to find someone — anyone — to fill an open position on the Town Council for South Prairie, an outpost of 435 people nestled in a rural creek valley in East Pierce County.

They advertised in newspapers and on the post office wall. The mayor went door to door, and said he asked every adult in town.

Not one qualified candidate wanted the job. As a last resort, the Pierce County Council decided unanimously last week to ask Gov. Jay Inslee to help.

Council Chairman Dan Roach, whose council district includes South Prairie, said he hopes someone will see it “as a badge of honor” to be called and appointed by the governor.

Inslee can make the appointment but isn’t required by law to do so. Regardless, the Town Council will continue meeting and making decisions.

The opening was created when councilman Les Rossich resigned in July. The Town Council had 90 days to fill the vacancy. The County Council had another 90 days.

County Attorney Susan Long said this is the first time in her 25 years with the county that the County Council has had to ask the governor to fill a Town Council or similar position because no one applied.

South Prairie straddles state Route 162 about 30 miles east of Tacoma. It is known as the last stop on the main stem of the Foothills Trail. About half of its residents live in the South Prairie RV Park.

The town has a mayor/council form of government. There are five members on the council, plus the mayor, who breaks ties in most matters.

But South Prairie’s civic machine hasn’t exactly run smoothly over the past year. Four council members, including Rossich, resigned in 2014. Councilman Stu Terry was the only one to stick around. Appointments were made for three of the open positions.

Mayor Tony Caldwell said he asked every adult in town to fill the one remaining vacancy.

Their response: “‘We’re not interested. We don’t have time.’”

One person — the daughter of town clerk Marla Nevill — did apply. But the Town Council voted not to appoint her because she had a conflict of interest because of her mom’s job, Caldwell said.

Caldwell said he phoned people, went door-to-door and asked others at the post office. Other council members asked as well.

The mayor says people don’t want to get involved in any matters that might stir up conflict.

The town is so small that when the council makes rules, Caldwell said, people get upset. “You’re stepping on your neighbors’ or relatives’ toes.”

Roach, the County Council chairman, agreed.

“It’s very difficult when you’ve got only a few hundred people,” said Roach, R-Bonney Lake. “The smaller the town, the smaller the group, the more political it becomes.”

South Prairie Council members are paid $50 a month. The mayor is paid $100 a month.

“It’s a lot of work for $100,” said Caldwell, who’s been on the council 16 years. “It’s a part-time position. But I’m on call 24/7.”

Caldwell, a retired naval architect, was appointed mayor in 2013 after the previous mayor resigned. He didn’t decide to stand for election as mayor later that year until no one ran and the filing period was extended.

“I was hesitant to run,” Caldwell said. “If you’re there 15 (or) 16 years, you get a little burned out.”

The town has an annual budget of $1 million. It has two employees, the part-time clerk and deputy clerk.

It has its own water and sewer system, run by contract. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department provides police service, also by contract.

The saga of the unwanted council seat might finally have a happy ending. One South Prairie resident stepped forward this week, and the town is in the process of forwarding her name to the governor, Caldwell said Wednesday.

If an appointment is made, that person would serve through December. An election will be held this November to fill the next four-year term.

Of course, that assumes someone will file to run for the office, or any of the others on the ballot this year.

All five South Prairie council positions are up for election in 2015.

“People are not like they used to be,” Caldwell said. “It was an honor to be on the council.”