The following guest editorial comes from our neighbor, Sara Holmes.
The election is in high gear now. Illegally placed signs are sprouting up like daffodils. Campaign literature is overflowing our mailboxes, including a mailer with imagery one candidate’s non-profit employer has insisted (too late) no longer be used. All signs of a robust spring.
It is an unfortunate truth of local elections that many voters do not take the time to understand their own local government and what responsibilities elected officials have. Worse still, some candidates actively seek to manipulate this failure by voters to benefit of their own interest.
Unlike state and federal election campaigns, many local elections, including the Ferguson city council election, are non-partisan. This form of election developed during the turn of the 20th century to remove local machine politics from city administration. The provision of essential services which require technical expertise suffered when placed under a party loyalty system where favoritism led to waste and corruption. As the saying goes “There’s not a Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole.”
This business-like approach is reflected in the city council-manager form of government selected and set out in our city charter for Ferguson. Municipal staff are hired for their technical expertise and are overseen by a city manager who, in turn, is overseen by the city council. While not fail-safe, as human foibles exist everywhere and can have consequences, hiring is at least based on qualifications of technical knowledge and skill.
There is no reason whatsoever to make the council a partisan contest or to look to partisan officials outside of Ferguson to recommend who to vote for as your council member. Yet certain candidates have gone to great effort to share their selfie photos and demonstrate their “endorsements.” Why take the recommendation of someone with no interest or experience with Ferguson as reason to determine your vote for council? The act of partisan endorsements is nothing more than feeding the self-interest of political machines and does not concern itself with the condition of our roads, trash removal, or public safety.
St. Louis county has a rich history of machine-style politics and partisan coalitions. Witness the scandals of Elbert Walton, the federal charges against Steve Stenger, and controversy this year regarding the vote for a County Council chair. Yet there are voters happy to oblige those who tell them to support these Political Action Committees (PACs) that seek to uphold the interest of those seeking election rather than pay attention to the actions, background, and abilities of the candidates they vote for.
Non-partisan elections do require informed voters to look at the person, not a label associated to a person. Savvy voters concerned with addressing local issues will look at endorsements and associations with non-partisan groups directly involved with the city they are voting in, not than those of external elected officials and partisan PACs.
Some endorsements are logical and very suitable for council candidates. One such group is the Professional Firefighters of Eastern Missouri, whose local IAFF #2655 has given endorsements for a candidate in each ward of Ferguson (Ward 1: Stephen Garrett; Ward 2: J. Toni Burrow; and Ward 3: Mike Palmer).
What we need now is a council of elected representatives capable of overseeing the budget, liaising with the city’s boards and committees, and guiding the work of the city manager. This requires people who can work with any other possible person in a productive way and will discuss—even vigorously debate—how to do that. We will not achieve this necessary goal if voters choose labels instead of competent, versatile people for council.
It is cringeworthy to hear calls to vote for a candidate to allegedly “unify” the council and “support” the mayor. This argument fails to understand the council-manager form of our government and the role of our council. To vote blindly because one was told “this one” without questioning the character, capabilities, and motives of each candidate fails the residents of Ferguson.