It has become popular to bemoan the decline of civic engagement, and no doubt the gridlock in Congress has fueled cynicism about government in general. As a nation, we roll through waves of apathy and activism, and the country is certainly in a deep trough.
Lack of interest in local politics, however, doesn’t seem to be the issue on the Vineyard. On Facebook, in newspaper comments, at dinner tables around the Island, current issues before town boards and regional authorities seem to be scrutinized, dissected and debated in lively detail.
Here, the real problem is participation. Increasingly, Island politics has become a spectator sport. In a report last week the Gazette found that for the second year in a row there are no contested elections in at least three of the six Island towns. The League of Women Voters, which once held candidate forums in nearly every town, has just one planned for this year, in Oak Bluffs.
The reasons are complicated. Serving on a town or regional board — whether it is the selectmen, the school board or the Martha’s Vineyard Commission — requires a major commitment of time and attention. Young people often need to work more than one job to make a living. People with families have to juggle the demands of parenting and career.
And holding local political office hardly confers celebrity status anymore — if it ever did.
People who put themselves out to serve in town and regional positions are easy targets for criticism — from disgruntled citizens, from armchair critics and even at times from editorial writers.
But citizens who volunteer their time and expose themselves to scrutiny by running for public office deserve our gratitude and respect, even as we need to stay vigilant that they are putting the community’s interests first.
Elected officials on the Vineyard can and do exercise enormous influence on what happens here — on our economy, our environment and on the support services that make Island living possible. Without casting aspersions on those who have faithfully served, we worry that without contested elections it is harder to test what is motivating those who do run, and to keep our leadership fresh.
What can be done to honor public service and encourage more of our citizens to enter into the contact sport of politics? We don’t have the answer, but perhaps our readers do. We welcome your thoughts.