Election lessons

November 1, 2013 

This has been an odd election season. In Clayton, the county’s most successful town, six people are running for three council seats, which is to say the town has twice as many candidates as seats available. Meanwhile, in Smithfield, the ballot has just one contested race, although the town has issues, and that’s putting it kindly.

But odd or not, every election season is instructive, and so it has been this year. Here’s what we learned:

Ideas matter; details matter more

In our experience, candidates are seldom specific. They say, for example, that they want to bring jobs to their town, but they offer no game plan, no specifics, for doing so. That was largely the case this year.

But every rule has its exception, and this election year, the most specific idea we heard came from Clayton Town Council candidate Bobby Bunn, who was specific when asked how town government could lower the cost of living in Johnston’s fastest-growing town. Encouraging denser development, Mr. Bunn said, would save residents money, at least in the long run. That’s because denser developments require fewer linear feet of water lines, sewer lines, streets and sidewalks. And when they age, those shorter lines cost residents less to repair or replace. Just as important, assuming a town grows over time, more residents are available to share in that cost of replacing or repairing infrastructure.

This is not an endorsement of Mr. Bunn’s candidacy; indeed, we thought the Clayton incumbents did a good job of explaining why Clayton is a relatively expensive town in which to live: All of those quality services cost money.

But details matter. For example, when a candidate says he or she will bring jobs to town, voters deserve to know how the candidate proposes to do so, and they deserve to know that before they go to the polls.

Mr. Bunn offered that and deserves credit for doing so.

The power of one (district)

Every election year, the Clayton Town Council hears calls to elect at least some of its members from residency districts. But while Clayton voters have gone so far as to reject district elections in a referendum, they’re not a bad idea.

Smithfield has had district elections for many years now, and recently, Marlon Lee, the lone District 1 candidate this year, highlighted their value. In an interview, Mr. Lee weighed in on a number of broad topics – economic development, public safety and education among them. But he was also an unapologetic advocate for East Smithfield, his home district. In short, Mr. Lee says, East Smithfield hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves from Smithfield tax dollars, and he plans to change that.

We suspect Mr. Lee genuinely cares about all of Smithfield, but his priority, by law and design, will be East Smithfield. Mr. Lee didn’t say this to our reporter, but we can imagine him pledging his support for a broad Smithfield initiative in exchange for a vote that benefits East Smithfield. And because he will be the East Smithfield councilman that will be his political prerogative.

Clayton has its equivalent of East Smithfield, but while it’s true that more than one candidate has drawn attention to the needs of North Clayton, no winner on Tuesday will owe his or her seat to North Clayton voters. Maybe someone should.

A reality check

It’s good that candidates envision their towns as more than they are. In Selma, for example, mayoral candidate Jeff Watson can imagine his town with a comedy club, jazz spot and a place to drink wine. He also wishes downtown had a grocery store, dry cleaner and 24-hour pharmacy.

But before any of those businesses come to Selma, the town will have to grow, and that’s where every town council should focus its efforts. No town can force an a business to come, but it can make itself appealing with a low property tax rate and reliable infrastructure – water, sewer, streets and, in some Johnston towns, electricity. Couple those things with a highly qualified workforce produced by good schools, and a town has a good shot at growing.

Candidates should do their homework

Every election is an open-book test, with detailed information available from a number of sources, including town hall.

And yet candidates routinely campaign without good information. In one town this year, a candidate called for competition in electricity service. We’d like that too, but it’s not going to happen. Johnston County has four public power towns – Benson, Clayton, Selma and Smithfield, none of which are going to allow a private utility to transmit power over lines those towns are still paying for – unless the private utility wants to buy the town’s electric system along with its debt, which isn’t going to happen.

Likewise, in Johnston towns served by a private utility, Duke Progress Energy is the only game in town, and it’s not going to let another company use its infrastructure either.

Furthermore, the public power towns can’t afford competition; they need a monopoly on customers to retire their power system debts.

We know these dynamics because we have covered Johnston County’s towns for decades. But really, such information is readily available to anyone who asks for it, and every candidate should.

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