Four ways all elected leaders can make a positive difference

  • Monday, August 27, 2012

Long ago, my wife Violet and I made a special commitment to always do our part to help our neighbors and improve our community’s quality of life.
That commitment recently led me to do something I never thought I’d do: run for public office.  
My decision to enter public service shouldn’t be viewed as a reflection on the incumbent candidate; personally, I believe he’s a fine fellow, and I don’t intend to say a negative word about him. I simply love my community, so I asked myself: Why not let voters decide if I’m fit to serve them in an official capacity?
Of course, nowadays it sometimes seems as if there’s more contempt than admiration for those in public office. Politicians are viewed as a foe, rather than a friend. And with good reason.  
Too often, the citizens’ best interests take a backseat to the special interests and lobbyists, which wield much influence in government. Too often, our leaders’ decision-making is guided by a desire to gain political advantage; they do what’s politically expedient instead of what’s right.
In Washington, there’s partisanship, name-calling and finger-pointing -- even during times when substantive debate is needed most.
Public service should be about doing things that improve peoples’ lives, and while I admit I’ve never held elected office, it seems that a lot of politicians make that look harder than it really is. To my mind, if they’re committed to genuine public service, there are some simple, non-political ways that all elected officials can make a positive difference for the communities they serve. Here are four “leadership goals” for those in positions of public trust – from the local school board to the U.S. Congress:
• Demonstrate community leadership. Leadership means more than just showing up and casting a vote. True leadership means setting a positive example in the community. When ordinary folks see their leaders being active in the community, it inspires them to do the same.
• Conduct the “people’s business” in the open. We’ve all heard about important decisions being made behind closed doors. Too often, public officials look for any excuse to keep their deliberations out of the public’s view.
For example, county and municipal governments discuss matters in “executive session” when, in fact, many of those matters should be discussed in public. At the state level, a lot of elected officials are granted exemptions from Freedom of Information laws and use those exemptions to keep records and other information out of the public’s hands.
Behind-the-scenes decision-making is one of the major roadblocks to quality government. When decisions are made in the open, those decisions are more likely to reflect the will of the people. Besides, openness helps to inspire trust in our public officials.
• Run positive campaigns. Watching some of the attack ads, which are all too common these days, it’s hard to believe this is how a civilized society chooses its leaders. As voters, we should make it clear that we expect candidates for public office to run positive, issue-based campaigns.
This would set the right example for the community and promote a more serious discussion of the issues. Negativity and “mudslinging” only distract from the issues, and in many cases deter good men and women from seeking public office.
• Respect those with different views. It’s important to stand up for tightly-held beliefs. But those in positions of elected leadership must also be willing to treat others with respect -- even those with whom they disagree.
Name-calling and insults between two sides only causes both sides’ positions to harden. Rarely is anything accomplished. Many of the challenges we face are too important to be debased by insults or partisan attacks.
These aren’t Republican ideas or Democratic ideas. They’re non-political steps that office-holders of all stripes – and all political affiliations – can and should take to improve our system of government and, in a very real way, better the lives of those they serve.

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