Pierce County couldn’t be any more democratic unless it had a mosquito control district.
As Washington state enters the last few days of election filing week, it’s worth considering the large number of local offices up for grabs this year: 196 elected posts. It’s also a stark reminder how many basic elements of community life — the earth we use for building and recreation, the water we drink and flush, the fire we try to keep at bay — are overseen by representative democracy.
This year the “help wanted” sign has gone up in 23 cities and town governments; 17 school districts; 15 fire districts; 11 water districts; four park districts and two sewer districts. In addition, voters across the county will choose a pair of Port of Tacoma commissioners.
All this adds up to a tremendous need for fresh thinkers who feel called to grassroots public service.
No, the odd-year ballot won’t dispatch anyone to the marble chambers of the state Capitol building. This election year also lacks the state and national political intrigue waiting around the corner in 2020.
But President Lyndon B. Johnson had it right when he said “government is best which is closest to the people.” Ideally, so many Pierce County residents will take LBJ’s words to heart this week that at least two good candidates will vie for every office.
As usual, the marquee races revolve around Tacoma, where four of the eight City Council seats are on the ballot this year. Two of those contests are wide open, as incumbents Anders Ibsen (District 1) and Ryan Mello (At large, Position 8) will clean out their desks at the end of 2019 due to term limits.
Tacoma incumbents Keith Blocker (District 3) and Conor McCarthy (At large, Position 7) are both seeking second terms, and it’s good to see a challenger filed to run against each of them Wednesday afternoon.
But a reluctance to take on entrenched leaders is concerning in other large local cities, such as Lakewood and Bonney Lake. Unopposed seats are also the norm in a host of smaller communities, such as Fircrest, Fife and Ruston. The City of Edgewood so far has four out of five incumbents lined up for free passes to reelection, including the mayor.
If that trend holds, it will be unfortunate. Contested elections are the best assurance that doorbells will be rung and public voices heard. They’re the best guarantee that candidates’ positions on contentious issues, from homelessness to teacher layoffs, won’t be left to guesswork.
Apathy is an easy habit to fall into. But it’s dangerous to assume that all hyper-local government entities in your community are being run well or that someone more qualified than you will step forward.
The worst-case scenario was revealed in a recent series of King-5 News investigative reports: More than 150 small Washington taxing districts have quietly evaded public oversight because of lax election protocols. That includes a south King County drainage district where an Enumclaw man has run the show since 1988 without voter approval; he now faces accusations of misappropriating up to $400,000.
Citizens have until 4 p.m. Friday to file with the Pierce County auditor, either online or in person. They should be prepared to pay a nonrefundable filing fee and provide campaign contact and voter pamphlet information.
Running for local office is a fundamental step toward running for higher office someday. It’s also a noble way to serve your community if you have no further political aspirations.
But if you’re determined to participate in a mosquito control district? Well, then, you might have to move to Eastern Washington.