(This column originally appeared in the fall of 2004 and, since we are in the midst of the local election campaign season, I thought it would be good to trot this old chestnut out again. – Editor)
This is an open letter to all the candidates running for elected office this fall.
Remember that, if and when you are elected, you will be a public servant, with an emphasis on the word "servant."
Know from the start that the people are the boss, not you. You must be available and accessible to the citizens at all times.
That means no hiding behind voice mail, no cowering behind public relations flacks, no turning off your cell phone, and no peeking out from the curtains and ignoring the knock at the door. It also means being at public meetings when you’re supposed to be there.
When a citizen contacts you, be responsive. If a citizen, your boss, is upset, you are supposed to sit there and listen to them. Don’t threaten them, ignore them, ridicule them, or flex bureaucratic muscle. Hear what the people are saying. Don’t play politics with the people. Do the right thing.
Also, the public’s money is not your money. It belongs to the people. It’s your job to keep track of it, know how much is in the bank, and use it wisely for the good of the citizenry with their consent.
I once heard a government official at a public meeting tell a citizen (who was critical about how the government was spending tax money) that the funds weren’t that citizen’s money because, even though he lived in the community, he didn’t pay income tax to that particular town since he didn’t work there.
That official couldn’t be more wrong.
If the money is in the public coffers it is indeed the people’s money. All the people’s. The government is the caretaker of it and collects it for the community for public use. It is the citizens’ money.
Once in office, don’t isolate yourself. Public servants should be visible and participate in the community. Not just in election years, but all the time. If elected, go out amongst the people, attend events, and walk down the street to talk with folks. Promote economics that keep the people’s jobs secure, support the arts, advocate for academics, and root for athletics. Don’t hide. You gave up the right to hide when you ran for government office.
Be aware. Exercise your brain. Read anything you can get your hands on – newspapers, magazines, books, letters from constituents – and don’t just read writers who agree with your point of view. Read the writings of people who may disagree with you. By doing so it will challenge your perspective and make you think.
Stay in tune with the culture in all its forms. Don’t be elitist. Don’t question someone’s patriotism simply because they don’t agree with you.
Maintain your humanity and understand the pain that is out there.
Heed Abraham Lincoln’s resonating words and hold them close – that the United States is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Remember this in all you do.
Rick Palsgrove is editor of the Southeast Messenger.