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Small-town politics feel a void

Being a rural mayor is not easy -- long hours, low pay, and loud complaints. Maybe that's why no one is running for the post.

November 03, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter

MASSENA, IOWA — This farmland village's mayoral election is today, but there's just one small problem: There is no candidate.

"No one wants the job," said Mayor Mike Cormack, 39, who is not seeking reelection. He tried to talk friends, neighbors and members of his church about him giving up the job in this town of 400 people. He wrote a letter to the local paper encouraging others to run.

"They all say the same thing: 'No thanks,' " said Cormack, who was elected mayor two years ago in a write-in campaign.

Though the country saw an unprecedented public interest in all things political last year, many towns this election season are facing a shortage of candidates willing to take on the headaches of leadership.

State officials and political scientists say finding candidates has always been a problem for small towns and rural communities, but the recession has made it particularly tough this year.

"It's a very scary time out there, economically. They're under the gun with their own finances, let alone being responsible for their town's financial health," said Marty Newell, chief operating officer for the Center for Rural Strategies, a Kentucky-based advocacy group.

In towns across the country, such as Cumberland, Iowa; Summit, S.C.; and Seven Mile, Ohio, residents are so reluctant to jump in to the political mix that there will be races with no candidates. State officials say there will also be scores of local elections this week with only one candidate.

Experts say that running a small town has grown enormously more complex over the years, and that it is hard to find residents who are willing and able to make difficult choices, particularly during times of shrinking budgets.

"These are the people who have to lay off city workers by the hundreds," said Matt Greller, executive director of the Indiana Assn. of Cities and Towns, who has seen a number of municipalities wrestle with this issue over the years. "They're the ones deciding which firehouses are going to be closed down, which police stations need to be closed down. And then they have to explain to their neighbors and friends, night and day, why life isn't as good in their town."

Being a local politician, even in tiny towns, is not an easy job. The pay is low, the hours long and the complaints loud.

Cormack, who is paid $100 a month as mayor, had served several terms as an Iowa state legislator before giving up politics and moving to Massena in 2003 to become a middle school social studies teacher.

He found his mayoral duties far more daunting than he ever expected. The council dealt with small items -- new sidewalks, painting the water tower -- that made a big impact on the town. And residents have never been shy about complaining.

The town is also faced with big problems, including having to overhaul its wastewater systems in the next few years because of changes in federal clean-water laws. The bill could top $2.5 million.

To deal with the shortage of people willing to serve, some towns have simply cut back on the number of elected officials, even though the work load is the same.

In Oklahoma, scores of towns have put measures before their electorate to reduce the number of council trustees from five to three: Local leaders reason that it is easier to keep fewer political seats filled.

In Cromwell, Okla., (pop. about 300) last year, the mayor and the town clerk resigned after an accounting scandal. Town leaders tried to find replacements with little luck. In April, residents passed a measure that shrank its local council to three seats.

The smaller council has spent the rest of the year hosting a garage sale and hawking hot dogs at summer concerts to raise much of the $60,000 -- nearly double the blue-collar town's annual budget -- that Cromwell owed to utilities, state agencies and the Internal Revenue Service, among others.

"It's been a thankless job, and people are afraid to help by getting involved in local politics," said Linda Groves, who recently became town clerk. "They're afraid that if the town gets sued, they might get named in the suit."

And there is another fear: Once elected, it can be nearly impossible to leave.

It was November 1987 when the residents of McClelland, Iowa, (pop. 125) first decided to make Emmett Dofner their mayor by writing his name on the blank ballots.

Dofner, a fire department engineer and diesel engine mechanic, had just gotten home from work when his phone started ringing with congratulatory calls.

"I thought it was a mistake," said Dofner, now 63. "Then, I thought it was a joke."

Amused, he decided to help out his town, about 25 miles northeast of Omaha. It was only a two-year stint, he thought, and the $600 annual paycheck would cover the gas he used driving to the monthly council meetings.

The job turned out to be much more. He helped mow the town park in the summer and cleared streets of snow in the winter. Then there were the continual phone calls and complaints about barking dogs, loud neighbors, burning leaves and overflowing garbage cans.

"They'd call and say, 'So-and-so's dog is in my yard.' I'd tell them, 'Well, shoot it,' " Dofner said. "At the end of those first two years, I thought, 'Well, I've done my part. Someone else can do it now.' "

The town held an election. No one ran for mayor, so the residents wrote in Dofner's name again. And again. He expects to be reelected by write-in vote today for a 12th term.

He said he'll take the job.

"I can't say no. I can't leave my community in a lurch," Dofner said. "It's just not right. A town needs a mayor."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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