Frostman column: The only way to change local politics is your involvement

Frostman column: The only way to change local politics is your involvement

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At the annual budget meeting, the Baraboo School Board followed the lead of the Baraboo Common Council and raised their own wages. Covered in a Nov. 7 Baraboo News Republic story, the board switched from being paid per meeting to a salary of $3,000 per year, and $4,000 per year for the board president, creating an increase in board salary costs from $18,600 to $22,000.

Board salaries represent well under 1/10th of one percent of the school’s annual budget of nearly $40 million, so essentially no impact. Actual dollars are minimal, but you may ask what increase in services the community will receive. Will it avail more public engagement or accountability?

Social media was abuzz with commentary. While largely procedural in nature, the optics presented amid union contract unrest make the move appear arrogant. Will social media outbursts lead to candidates in the spring? Consider it, will you? Baraboo has had one school board race in nine years featuring one extra candidate.

It calls to mind my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quote, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Will you step into the arena?

A projected property tax increase, and the Baraboo Common Council’s bump in pay accompanying new fees including a wheel tax and streetlight tax add fuel to the local fire of unrest with elected officials.

I support local officials receiving a small amount of compensation. As a school board member, I was paid $50 per meeting. Each elected official does or should spend numerous hours researching, printing information, responding to emails, and having constituent conversations. It’s not a job to be taken for the money. It’s responsibility undertaken as an elected official. Grateful for a small amount of compensation, I don’t think I would ever support giving myself a raise.

In small communities, the line between responsibility and accountability becomes blurred. If increases in local municipal fees and property taxes bother you, what will you do? Go to meetings? Speak your mind? Put your name on a ballot? At what consequence?

This is where the rubber meets the road. The truth is most races within a community sadly go uncontested. Many local candidates rely simply upon their last name or standing in the community, giving little or no effort to constituent contact, particularly if they’ve held the post for some time. They will presume most just recognize the name and will cast a vote in their favor just because. They are entrenched. No accountability or potential consequence exists in that scenario. Why shouldn’t they vote themselves a raise? What are you, the public, gonna do about it?

Few elected officials seek out folks whose positions may differ out of fear they’ll express those positions. It sounds cynical but comes from the perspective of one who has had to stick his foot into doors not otherwise open.

Four of the nine Baraboo Common Council positions will be up in 2020. Three in the city of Portage. All seven even-numbered districts in Beaver Dam, along with slates in a bunch of villages and townships. Most city council districts are the size of a postage stamp. They could easily be walked by a candidate or representative in a couple of Saturday strolls. It’s not difficult. Anyone ever been to your door?

Each county will be electing a new Board of Supervisors. Sauk County saw eight contested races out of 31 districts in 2018. Regardless of your perspective, we must do better. It’s not without understanding we all have busy lives and a wide range of commitments, but we need more people involved.

How do people get on the myriad of committees abounding in our respective counties? Who do you have to know? Those are inroads to local government, but an inherent challenge is the necessity of inner-circle connections. Round and round we go. Many meetings are held during the workday, precluding most of the working population from participation.

You can change the course and let not the old guard dissuade you. Nothing changes without your involvement.

Scott Frostman lives in Baraboo and has roots throughout Wisconsin. He believes anyone can make a difference and can be reached at scfrostman@gmail.com.

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