Forums take aim on apathy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Because I’m something of a political and civic junkie, I often overestimate others’ interest in topics that intrigue me.

Poor voter turnout in local, state and national elections still baffles me, even though it’s been a fact of our democracy as far back as I can remember.

When a public body, as required by law, holds a public hearing on how to spend tens of millions of our tax dollars, and nobody shows up to listen and speak, I’m puzzled.

Perhaps the silver lining in the Navy’s plan to put a training airstrip in our tranquil region is the reawakening of our collective civic spirit. To see more than 500 folks gathered at Southampton High School on Wednesday for an informational meeting was refreshing, even though, as organizer Tony Clark noted, a hundred or so empty seats should have been filled.

In the lengthy fight ahead, citizens will learn a lot about their local, state and federal governments and the ability of the citizenry to influence them. It’s a shame the stakes are so high, but the civics lesson will be invaluable and could kindle an interest that lingers long after the OLF issue is resolved.

Some observers blame cynicism for citizen disinterest in politics and government — the notion that one voter is powerless in the big scheme of things, so why bother to care? Perhaps. I lean more toward apathy as the root cause. People don’t participate because they’re not interested. Popular culture consumes the limited time we have outside of family and work obligations.

So at the risk of being sorely disappointed with the response, our newspaper will host a couple of public forums this month with Franklin City Council candidates. On Monday, we’ll feature candidates in Ward 1 and Ward 2. On Wednesday, April 30, a second forum will have the city’s three mayoral candidates.

They say that a party thrower’s worst fear is no one showing up. In the case of our newspaper’s candidate forums, I’ve opted for low expectations and, therefore, a chance of being pleasantly surprised.

We hope you’ll come out to the Paul D. Camp Community College Workforce Development Center at 6:30 p.m. Monday. We promise to have you out by 8, and the format should be informative and lively. Each candidate will make prepared statements, a staple of all candidate forums, but ours also will feature questions on subjects that matter to you.

Many of you have e-mailed questions to, and we hope to receive more by noon Monday. Only your question, not your name, will be used. We purposely will not share the questions with the candidates in advance, because we want their responses to be candid, not rehearsed. A prospective public servant, in our view, should have a good all-around grasp of the issues he will address if elected.

The format would seem to favor incumbents, whose knowledge of issues should run deeper because of their experience. On the other hand, an incumbent has a track record to answer for, while challengers and political newcomers get to talk about what they would do if elected. The advantages should offset each other.

We will make sure the questions are related to issues, policies and performance, not personalities. Don’t expect any “gotcha” questions — but rather a substantive discussion of matters that affect us as citizens.

I commend the candidates for their willingness to face the voters. The statements and responses will be useful for voters in an important election for our city.

This election’s important regardless of one’s allegiances and views.

If you’re pleased with the current administration and the direction of city government, your vote is important, because two incumbents on the May 6 ballot — Mayor Jim Councill and Ward 2 Councilman Charles Wrenn — face serious, capable challengers.

If change is your preference, the opposition candidates will need all the help they can get to beat experienced incumbents with broad support bases.

Voters in Ward 1 are starting anew with their City Council representation, incumbent Joe Scislowicz having opted not to seek re-election. Political newcomers Barry Cheatham and Dan Hoctor get their chance to make an early impression with voters Monday.

In Ward 2, Wrenn and challenger Benny Burgess both are longtime residents with good name recognition, so their stances on the issues could well sway voters who like both men personally.

If Monday’s forum and the mayoral forum on April 30 give even a little helpful information to voters in making these important decisions, we will have accomplished our goal.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is