There’s a story about John F. Kennedy that serves to remind us of the limits of power.
The 35th President was attempting to take a nap during a family gathering at the Kennedy Compound while the family’s huge brood of children played on the ground floor. Attempts to shush or shoo them failed. Finally, the frustrated president, ailing from a headache, appeared at the top of the stairs and shouted, “I am the President of the United States and I said shut up!”
He was Uncle Jack, he was even the President of the United States, but at that moment, JFK had to accept that in that situation, he had no consent to govern. He had to rely on the local authority of their parents.
In a civil society political power is bestowed by the constituency, and those who are elected serve only with the permission of the electorate. Their power is also relative — if a leader strays from the source of his power, his power is weakened or extinguished. Hence, the city council, school board trustees, and the county commissioners of Huntsville-Walker County have no influence by virtue of their office over the electorate in another county. And, most assuredly, they have never assumed they would or should. They are well aware that they represent the life that swims in a small pond.
That’s one way to look at it. Another is that there are more than 63,000 souls in Walker County, 35,000 in Huntsville, and 6,000 or so students enrolled in HISD. And our system of government recognizes the dignity and significance of every one of these souls. If you’re elected to serve this community, your job is arguably just as important as any other elected position anywhere else in the nation. Consider that local government has the most personal impact on the lives of individual citizens. All elections are important, but for the individual, local elections are critical.
Consider also that Huntsville-Walker County is faced with huge issues and that the decisions these newly elected officials make will have real consequences for years to come. We have many things to be proud of, though if we made a list, it’s likely we would not all agree on what should be on it. For example, some of us are very proud of our library and delighted that the city bond issue to fund the expansion passed by such a wide margin. Others fear that without the grants local government so vigorously pursues, we might be hard pressed to provide even basic services without raising taxes. With money being tight and the multi-generational influence of acres and acres of tax-exempt state land on our coffers, we haggle over spending priorities. This is necessary, and, when done in the open and with respect for a diversity of opinions, it’s also healthy.
You don’t have to be in Huntsville long to know the community is deeply divided. The centrally divisive issue, from which many others spring, is economic growth. That’s been an issue for as long as we can remember. But there are new issues associated with growth, and these, like TIRZ, have put a strain on intergovernmental relationships. The way we debate the issues has also changed. The public face of government may once have been more civil. The ad hominem attacks and the influence brokering may have gone on in private, but they didn’t often make the public record. More of the debate is now public. That might be a healthier and more transparent way of doing business if the discourse was for the most part productive and respectful rather than sometimes personal and vituperative. You don’t need a newspaper to interpret the tenor of these discussions — videotape catches the whole thing. An interested and well-informed public might see this rancor as dysfunctional and alienating or as the growing pains of a community learning how to be more involved in the political process. The outcome of this election might provide the verdict on that.
Before Nov. 2 and the opportunity to renew our consent or recalibrate the quality of our representation, The Item will examine some of the issues facing the community — growth, water, tourism, the arts and education — and interview incumbents and challengers to include their thoughts and ideas. We’re going to submit questionnaires to the candidates and publish their answers. We’ll publish your letters about the candidates, as long as they are not mass produced and otherwise follow our guidelines. The Item, however, will not endorse candidates.
You’ve let us know loud and clear that you’d rather we provide you with information and let you make up your own minds. Some of you said community newspaper endorsements seemed disloyal to the rejected candidates and their supporters. Others said you did not trust that our endorsements were unbiased, well-informed or politically astute.
The newspaper’s first job is to dig deep and ask questions, to responsibly praise good governance and to call out elected leaders for bad decisions, bad behavior and poor governance. The Item has not always had the will or the means to do that. You’ve said so, and we’ve heard you. The power of the Fourth Estate in this “small pond” must be earned.