“Public office … What were you thinking?”

By Mayor Rick Graham

March, 2019 Chamber Newsletter.

Oh, bless the naïve. Twelve years ago, I was there so I know from first-hand experience the things you say when you run for office that first time, versus what you know later, after enduring the severe learning curve.

First, I want to express my gratitude for the seven new candidates for aldermen in our upcoming April election, for stepping up and wanting to serve Spring Hill. It is easy to complain and voice negative assumptions without all the facts. So, kudos to each of you for wanting to do something about our challenges, hopefully, in a collaborative fashion.

The Chamber leadership did a great job recently with the “Meet the Candidates” luncheon. Do you know one of the things I’m looking for in the candidate’s answers? It is how many times they use the word “I,” instead of “we.” Are they wanting to serve to be collaborative, or is it for their personal pride? Do they make promises assuming they already know it all or that future information provided to them could mean the world of difference in a decision?

Each seat on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BOMA) is like a judge … you weigh the information on a case-by-case basis. A judge doesn’t announce his or her decision before hearing the case, but candidates for office feel the need to state wide promises that he/she will never vote for something. Well, those are words they likely will later eat if elected. They don’t mean to be deceptive, but it is just about the fact that they don’t know what they don’t know. The job comes with an abundance of information that cannot be fully communicated to all in a few minutes.

A lot of good people stay home after long days at work. So do a lot of complainers. The reality hits newly elected folks about four months in that they didn’t understand the time it takes to serve in public office. They rush home from work, grab some fast food dinner, if time allows, and sit through 22 items on our agenda into the wee hours of the night. Plus, the good ones spent hours over the weekend doing their due diligence preparation, and many don’t. The good ones serve on several City committees or commissions and attend a few that they don’t serve on each week. Now you’re getting into a lot of time at City Hall. Either the family, and especially the children, suffer with the time loss, or the City. They don’t realize it is like working two jobs. The decision to run sounded like a hobby of a couple hours per week. Twelve years ago, I didn’t know either.

I enjoy seeing the new faces and fresh voices run for City elections. I have seen the growth of the three new aldermen elected two years ago. Ask them what kind of learning curve they have endured, and how they see it all differently now that they are engaged. They made campaign promises and assumptions on road projects that were well on their path of the bureaucracy of progression, but they didn’t know. They didn’t know about the complexity of our City budget, and that is actually about eight budgets that must each be balanced. There is a lot that none of us knew until we were engulfed into the process with many, many hours of dedicated, collaborative work.

To those who win the April elections, as the newcomers, you don’t realize that your lives will change, as you are immediately now part of the problem to many folks. You are now part of the system that hasn’t fixed the roads fast enough. It will be different from the inside, believe me.

Your name is now open game for those who choose to slander you freely, and you have minimum legal recourse. You lose court protection when in the public eye for your reputation. A public figure cannot succeed in a libel or slander lawsuit on incorrect, harmful statements unless there is proof that the person acted with actual malice by knowing the falsity, or by reckless disregard for the truth. Private citizens don’t have to prove malicious intent to win a libel suit. In other words, burden of proof is much higher for public officials than citizens.

Your skin is about to become much thicker. You will endure your name being thrown around social media as the worst of the worst, and all you are trying to do is make a positive difference for your community. Your flesh wants you to patronize the naysayer’s sentiments, when you know they do not have the full story. Oh, the pain of it all, and the loss of pride, when all you want to do is make everyone happy.

The Bible warns of pride many times. We all want to be crowd pleasers, and when elected officials make decisions for just that reason, that is pride, folks. When we campaign for office, we say the things that we feel will resonate with others, and who may feel frustrated like ourselves. We want to make them proud that they voted for us. But, after elected, we are then struck with the fact that it takes courage to do what is right for the City, and we must push away pride and be a true servant leader. That is not to say that public sentiment is always wrong, it is not. However, when there are consequences to a decision that are much worse than citizens understand, it takes courage to be that leader. That is part our failure to communicate effectively, but it is due to so much information to convey, and the limits of people’s time and patience.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The high level of dissatisfaction with elected officials in America today is alarming. Why would good people subject themselves to this ridicule, and what were they thinking when they decided to run?

The pride wears away a few months after being sworn in, and the reality hits that this leadership role entails a lot of people skills, handling stress, and learning a variety of subjects from finance, legal, environmental, administration, economics, public safety, set past precedence, and mounds of multiple levels of bureaucracy that tie your hands.

What were you thinking when deciding to run for local public office? I hope I know what you were thinking, as you wanted to roll up your sleeves and participate in positive change through collaboration, and a united effort forward. You wanted to develop the future and have the citizens of Spring Hill three decades from now say, ‘thank goodness they did what they did back then.’

Even if it is not what you expected, you still over-commit for all the heaps of committee responsibilities, hard work, and time away from your families. You take the evidence of every BOMA decision on a case-by-case basis and have the courage to do what is right for the big picture.

You attempt to express to folks the reasons why your decisions are sound, as we all know steering a large ship takes time to move with every touch of the steering wheel. You come to realize it is not about you, and your skills that make it all work, but the collective multitude of others from City staff to your fellow elected leaders.

There is a lot of positive change that can be made at the local level. Some people don’t run for local public office because they believe it will never change things. That’s not true, as I believe we have turned the ship the last decade here in Spring Hill and doing the things now that will lead us to things like improved infrastructure projects, historic preservation, active sportsplex ball fields, and much more. We must keep driving forward now.

Also, local government is the best level of government toward having an incubator type environment for finding new ways of doing things. The State and Federal offices hold a lot of power and influence, but the local officials have the ability to try new ideas and easily see the impact of these policies. Local officials have the most direct impact on the cities, where you can see the fruit of your labor at some point in the future.

Voter turnout continues to slide downwards, with a lot of citizen apathy, but if you want good people to run, we all have to get out and vote for them. We have made running for office such a toxic undertaking that few good people want to pursue it.

If we want good people in office, we have to make it possible for them to get there, as it is one of the best ways someone can give back to their community. It comes with pain, as I have mentioned, but I don’t regret it personally. It takes personal sacrifice and a thick skin as it extracts a toll not only on you, but your children, spouse, and close supporters.

I applaud these nine candidates who have chosen to participate in making a difference if elected. Two of them have served and have decided to come back and ask you for some more and continue to serve. Listen to all of them and make your choices on really who gets it and is not just telling you what they think you want to hear. By everything that I have mentioned, you are not doing them a favor by voting for them but basing your vote on who will favor the City’s long-term initiatives with courage and conviction.

To those of you who are not elected in a few weeks, there are other ways to serve locally. Several people who were not elected two years ago serve on many of our committees and commissions today. Speak up, step up, and we will put you to work.

Business leaders, as David St. Charles has stated, your vote counts. I was 29 votes away from getting my life back two years ago, so don’t think it doesn’t matter. Vote, and encourage others to do the same. Spring Hill forward.