A fond story of my family regards my boyhood idol, my late grandfather, Bob Borden, and his support of a member of the city council in West Covina, where I was raised. No matter how hard he tried, my malapropos-prone Grandpa mangled Councilman Herb Tice's wisdom-driven campaign slogan. Grandpa often reversed the words, encouraging people: "Think Tice: Vote Twice." We still chuckle about it today.
This was an era of my formative years when friends and neighbors would gather in my grandma's backyard dance studio to stuff envelopes for candidates as I scurried about delivering letterhead, address labels and strange looking libations that I was admonished not to sample.
I stood with my grandma outside Vons to collect signatures for ballot propositions. Fridays meant dinner table debates at the Elks Club and taught me to speak my mind (something regular readers will have most likely figured out by now). Community activities and political awareness -- AND participation -- were as much my frame of reference as football and the rock bands.
The idea of a community cancelling its municipal elections due to a lack of interest is utterly foreign to me.
After my wife (a long-time activist of another stripe) and I moved to this wonderful community, we immediately dove in. We became active in the VFW, attended council meetings and applied for city commissions. When our concerns about local speeding went unaddressed, we did what was needed to draw attention to the problem in a way that could not be ignored.
We firmly believe that participation is what makes a community strong, and from that participation flows leadership.
Leadership. An interesting term. In a later phase of my youth, I was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, an Air Force auxiliary. There I studied the seed concepts of leadership in the military model. I still reflect on those seeds as an Army company commander and combat-experienced officer. The foundation of those lessons is reciting a definition of leadership that ends with a key phrase: "Learning to follow is the beginning of leadership."
I've been reflecting on this over the last few days as Monrovia finds itself with a mysterious absence of leadership. This is not a criticism of the city council, individually or collectively. It is certainly not a criticism of either of the candidates nor of Joe Garcia's decades of dedicated service.
But it is a criticism of all of us, including me.
People should be lining up for the opportunity to help guide this community. Difficult days lie ahead as our state and country face troubling economic horizons. This is an era of challenging decisions on things like the remnants of redevelopment, maximizing the opportunity of the Gold Line, questions of pension sustainability.
Lots of people clearly want to be heard. The Monrovia Area Partnership has attracted all numerous caring residents. The fantastic Plan Monrovia turnouts are a testament to interest.
But few folks answered the call for the tough job: actual decision making.
There are many disincentives: questions about our economic future; a sense of bitterness in certain proceedings. The undermining, attacking and ostracizing of folks who see things differently but still love the community.
And these morph into individual reasons: One potential contender opted out for family reasons. Another feared the time commitments. Yet another had run before and felt once was enough. I was encouraged to run, but opted out for a variety of reasons, including my respect for the strength of the expected candidates and some questions about my military obligations.
But, consider: the 2009 election saw six challengers face two incumbents, defeating one. In 2011, three challengers took on two incumbents. Neither challenger was particularly strong or did well, but that's beside the point. Merely posing a challenge is an act of checking and balancing our government -- providing leadership at the margins.
Having an uncontested council race is a bad thing. It reflects a lack of structure for nurturing leadership in the community -- a next generation of leaders that is not following, champing at the bit to move ahead.
In part, this is a long-arc trend in society: Fewer comrades at the VFW and American Legion. Clubs strapped for members with some, like our own Elks Club, closing. Political efforts less reliant on envelope stuffing parties and their intertwined vines of structure in these days of email blasts, blogs and online advertising.
There is good news: Our commission members are focused on running the city, not jockeying for promotion. The people are satisfied sufficiently with the city that they see no reason to fix it themselves.
But a community needs a pool of folks who are actively engaged and willing to step up –- not necessarily looking to, but willing to -- and willing to work just to make things interesting. A community needs kids scurrying around with mailing labels, and all that comes with them.
It's healthy when the people want to participate in a robust, deliberative democracy.
Bad things happen when governments don’t have elections. Bad things happen when government of the people, by the people and for the people is not of interest to the people. And bad things happen when activism does not generate leadership.
Here’s hoping some dedicated folks jump in for a write-in campaign, and turn a non-election into a spectacular exercise in democracy.
Grandpa would like you to vote once, at least.