Editorial: Want to truly help your community? Run for office
This spring, voters across Washington County will make important decisions on a host of local issues, deciding everything from school board seats to funding for local fire departments.
It's a shame, then, that so many of these important elected positions are drawing few, if any, people to run.
Voters in all Washington County school districts have seats open this May, but after the filing deadline passed last week, several — in fact the majority — of open seats won't have more than one name on the ballot.
In Washington County, 10 of the 16 school board races are uncontested this year. Outside of school board races, more than 70 percent of the 49 races countywide this year are uncontested. As the only name on the ballot, it's all but assured that these candidates, many of them incumbents, will be elected, with no competition.
Elections like these don't draw the headlines that bigger races do, but they're just as important to shaping the fabric of our community, and it's high time more people get involved in local politics. Competition, after all, is essential for the system to function. Candidate town halls aren't held with only one candidate on the ticket. Neither are debates planned nor endorsement editorials written. Good or bad, that candidate will stay in office as long as they wish, if no one runs against them.
This isn't a new argument. Newspapers have been making these same points for years, but two years ago, fresh off a contentious presidential election, it seemed like that tradition may have been changing. People were coming out of the woodwork to run for local elections in 2017, and plenty of people seemed ready to get involved in local government.
Those candidates went on to sweep into office in a wave that challenged incumbents in offices all over the state. No incumbent in either Hillsboro or Forest Grove school districts kept their seat in 2017.
We aren't saying incumbents should always face the kind of opposition as school board candidates did two years ago, and we were sad to see some of the school board members voted out of office leave, but it was nice to see so many people interested in races that matter to their communities.
Whether candidates win or lose, the number of people running show that people are interested. They care.
But this year, it seems that swell of support for candidates has washed back out to sea, with the vast majority of races in Washington County going uncontested this spring.
In the Hillsboro School District, one of the state's largest, only one of three seats up for grabs will have more than one person running. But even that seat — which looks to replace outgoing school board member Kim Strelchun — has already had one candidate in the three-way race pull out, leaving political newcomer See Eun Kim facing off against former school board candidate Bart Rask, an orthopedic surgeon who ran for the seat in 2015.
South of Forest Grove in the Gaston School District, two of the three seats are uncontested, and the third remains completely open. No one — not one person — has filed to run for that seat. It's a similar story for the Banks City Council, which is still looking for someone to fill the seat of former City Councilor Teri Branstitre who stepped down months ago after she moved outside of city limits.
These races do matter. Local fire district boards need filled, as do school boards, water district boards and parks district boards across the county.
This year, voters in Gaston, Cornelius, Banks and the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue district will decide whether to fund local option levies which pay for vital fire services in their communities.
There are some interesting highlights this year. Both of the Forest Grove School Board seats face two and three challengers apiece, and two often overlooked fire district board seats are also hotly contested, if you'll pardon our pun. Five people are running for three seats on the Forest Grove Fire Board and a crowded six people are running for two seats on Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue's board.
We've written before about the importance of local committees and commissions in need of members, and last week we dedicated space on this page to the importance protests can play in the political process. Both are excellent ways to get involved in your communities, but there's only one way to actually make changes, and that's to have a seat at the table.
We want you to get involved in your local communities and be the change you want to see in the world. Do you love the way your city or school district is working? Run to keep it that way. Hate the way it's working? Run and change things from the inside. It's these seats — not the national or statewide elections that draw big headlines and millions in TV commercials — that can make the biggest impact on our daily lives. They raise or lower our taxes; they decide what our children learn and they keep our firefighters employed.
It's too late to run for this May's elections, but more school board seats will open in two years. City Council seats will be open next fall, along with dozens of other local positions.
And if those seats aren't appealing to you, the least we can do as citizens is make sure we vote. This community is made by each of us every day, and getting involved in how it's running is the best way to ensure Washington County remains a great place to live for decades to come.