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Minnich: Elected office should get stipend, expenses commensurate with commitment

To give pay and benefits to small government officials or not? That has been the subject of some debate in recent weeks, both at the county level and the city of Westminster.

You could put me on either side when choosing debating teams and I’d put forth some points pro and con.

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Forget a one-size-fits-all answer. Small towns may not have the same resources or needs as a large town, county government, or state offices. Commissioners at large would be different from commissioners by district or home rule or charter government. How much work needs to go toward policy versus how much expertise needs to be hired — these are factors.

It’s better to spend tax dollars on staff salaries than on policymaking, but wisdom is worth something. So is integrity and bipartisanship.

Economics is a consideration. The public pays the costs of salaries and benefits, and the tax rate is affected by personnel costs from the top to the bottom of the public payroll.

Still, there’s more at issue than just the money. The argument is more complicated than the simple idealistic notion that service to the community should be its own reward. Unless you don’t mind if the only people making all the decisions are wealthy — or well-connected.

But just being in office costs more than wisdom and time. Elected people are invited to the fundraisers for the fire companies, the local school bands, drama club, the arts, the association for this (fill in the blank), the Ag Center, 4-H, scouts, the hospital, the feed the hungry program, free clinic, various scholarships, rec league drives — you get the picture.

And, of course, your attendance is expected at the annual ball or gala or concert or banquet at $100 or more every one, which requires dress up or at least something other than your best Sears outfit, and the spouse wants to make a good impression, so there you go — off for work on the hair, nails, and other mysteries. Those who already have the means to support community interests sometimes forget that not everyone can afford that lifestyle. Those with humbler means should not be excluded from serving in elected office.

The presumption that there is a vast pool of astute and competent civilians out there ready and able to step in and serve as a council member or mayor on any other elected capacity rings with oversimplification. True, mature and experienced people can win office and serve with distinction, but there’s a need for more investment and commitment than most people appreciate.

Everyone who gets elected to anything shows up the first day as clueless about what’s really going on as the kid headed for first grade. Even kindergarten is not enough preparation for the next step in your life. So, job one is to get some education to go along with on the job training.

It means getting your info from someone other than party donors. It requires taking classes offered by state and federal agencies or universities, not the classes offered by the central committee on how to campaign and redirect questions into party talking points in forums and interviews. It’s about more than party fundraising and politicking.

It’s about time that you might be spending with family and friends being diverted to courses and meetings about such things as environmental regulations and bond ratings, labor laws, planning and zoning and constructions standards, and reading, reading, reading.

People who serve in elected office should get a stipend and expenses commensurate with the commitment of time and personal investment, tempered by the understanding that this is not a job to enrich the office-holder; it’s a token show of appreciation and financial remuneration for service in the public’s best interests. Our armed forces serve the country, but we pay them something, too.

Dean Minnich retired from a career in journalism and served two terms as county commissioner. His column appears on Thursdays. Comments can be emailed to dminnichwestm@gmail.com.

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