Tuesday, August 23, 2011

During the televised Academy Awards you’ll never catch an empty seat.

But not everyone in those comfy chairs has earned a spot through talent or competition. Some people you see on your screen have never been in a movie, not even as an extra.

As the invited stars head to the bathroom or outside to catch a smoke  during the awards presentations for best foreign documentary short, or if they just don’t show at all, no worries about the place revealing spotty attendance.

And for that, the ABC television network and Academy can thank seat fillers, people who show up for the sole purpose of populating the chairs so the theater doesn’t look empty.

This strategy, often referred to as “papering the house,” is employed elsewhere in the entertainment industry for concerts and musicals. The criteria is really quite simple: you just have to be able to fill a seat. No questions.

Unfortunately, this appears to be all Carroll residents are now asking for the mayor’s office and six council seats. We are on the verge of a second-straight election season with no competition for any of the seats.

Whoever raises his or her hand gets the job.

This is no knock on the announced candidates — in 2011 or those who ran in 2009. Judged from a competitive field they may very well emerge as the best candidates.

But having races with no competition is not healthy for a city of 10,100 that bills itself as being one of the more progressive retail-trade centers in Iowa. Ideas aren’t tested. Leaders aren’t shaped. The privilege of representing you isn’t earned in the truest sense.

What’s more, the elected officials seated with no challenge, try as they might to suggest the contrary, believe they hold a mandate from the people that doesn’t really exist.

Take for instance the office of mayor. If a candidate runs unopposed for a second or third term — as Mayors Ed Smith and Jim Pedelty did — they were at least initially vetted before getting the gavel — Smith against Councilman Don Nepple and Pedelty in a race with Councilman Tracey Wellendorf.

The only announced candidate for mayor today is Councilman Adam Schweers, who is midway through one, four-year term representing Carroll’s 1st Ward — after coming through an uncontested race to capture his spot on the council.

As a small-business owner and council member — not to mention a former Carroll Rotary Club president and leader of the Connect Young Professionals — Schweers is certainly qualified to be mayor of Carroll. And in a field of two or three or five candidates he may come out on top. But that’s not the point here.

Do we really want to live in a city in which someone can be elected to represent Carroll’s largest ward with no competition, and then just two years later, get the gavel as mayor with no one else’s name on the ballot next to his, no choices for voters, no competing platforms, no alternative viewpoints?

Is that who we are now? “Whew, well if he wants to do it, that’s fine by me. Means I don’t have to.” Are we a city that is relieved to have just one candidate come forward for each seat?

What’s maddening about this likely scenario is that we know talented people are out there. Passions flow on issues, too.

Carroll County Auditor Joan Schettler told me the day before the vote on the planned new Carroll Public Library that people were in near hysterics out of fear they couldn’t get an absentee ballot to vote on the measure.

Is it simply a case that people focus on single issues and don’t understand the integrated big picture?

Not hardly.

We receive letters to the editor and detailed comments on our website about city matters. We know people care deeply about Carroll and its future, and understand an array of issues.

One of the problems is clearly that far too many people in this community desire universal likeability. Each election cycle for the past decade and a half, I’ve heard names bandied about of potential mayors, “great guys” who “everyone likes.” Inevitably, none of these local super-hero candidates ever enter the race. You can’t be liked by everyone and lead in the way we need mayors and council members in Carroll to do.

Local government, as one insider described it to me the other day, is necessarily a messy business.

And it works best when there is competition. Without it, the process for “electing” our leaders — the ones who decide much about our lives — becomes something akin to a grade-school class of 33 kids in which one or two kids keep raising their hands, getting all the attention and energy and say over the day simply because of the silence and apathy of others.

There is a system of government in which public competition for office doesn’t exist. It’s called communism.

Carroll deserves a true democracy with many candidates.

Leave the seat fillers for Hollywood.