The following article is an opinion piece and represents the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.
Why is it that elected officials so often morph into the autocrats they once sought to oust from office? How does a person become the embodiment of the driving force to call them to serve?
I’m rounding out my fourth year covering small town corruption. Four years is a very short window of time in the scheme of things, but the window has given me more than a glimpse of the entire first term of office of those who were elected in the first election cycle of my residency. (Municipal terms of office are four years)
To give you a bit of background, after writing one article on one town of 110 people, I was propelled into around the clock coverage of local governments in south Georgia, attending city and county meetings and filing requests for public records to learn as much as I could about the communities I was asked to cover. Most of the cities were ripe with dysfunction, meetings were disorderly, and dissent from a public primed to challenge incumbents ran rampant. Though each city faced different issues and scandals, the next was just a cookie cutter exhibit of the last.
By the time the elections rolled around, the sunlight shed on the scandals, the drain as a result of financial mismanagement, and the (usually) downright illegal behavior was enough for The People to displace at least a few of their long serving politicians. The activists briefly feel empowered while their choice – newly elected politician (“the newbie”) – feels high and elevated. With the public holding the newbie accountable and the newbie transmitting intel to the public, there’s a symbiotic relationship that seems to work…until it simply doesn’t anymore…because the rinse cycle of a politician has begun.
It always starts the same way.
The newbie is sworn into office with the momentum from a contested election win and the support of the public behind him. The public image of the newbie is glorified because the newbie campaigned on changes and reforms that the public has longed for as far back as memory goes. There is a new level of excitement because *this time* is going to be the time that it all shifts from the good ‘ol boy system to the new era of transparency, accountability, and legitimacy. Of course, the local newspaper supported “the other guy” during the election, so the politician to mouthpiece pipeline is no longer operational.
The first few months are full of sunshine and butterflies. Everything appears more open, questions are welcomed, and there is a willingness to publicly profess the good, the bad, and the ugly because all of it is going to be fixed. It’s a new day!
But after a while, complacency sets in. It gets comfortable as a routine is established. The public doesn’t feel a need to attend the meetings because things are running smoothly, the members of council are a united front, and the local media and the newbie hug each other when they see each other and sit together at football games. The newbie – whether a council member, a mayor, county commissioner, or school board member – slowly begins to chip away at the mountainous public service-based agenda put into place after taking office. It’s okay that they’re usurping more power, though, because they are different than the last administration and that is what matters.
Much like in the months that follow the purchase of a new car, the crumbs that smudge out transparency are too much of a burden to sweep up on a daily basis. The windshield that was once crystal clear is now clouded by pollen, dust, and bug guts. The dirty vehicle blends in without drawing attention in a way the shiny new car that no one else has can’t. The wheels of the activists that once ushered the newbie from peasant to power have been replaced with all terrain tires that ensure the newbie steamrolls anything in his path.
The outspoken activists are now a thorn in the side, the alternative media is no longer valuable, and constructive criticism is an act of war. The newbie is the hammer that only sees nails.
That’s the rinse cycle of elected officials – the point at which the energy of the public engagement diminishes and the self-satisfying decisions begin to prevail.
We’ve come to expect this behavior out of our state and federal officials. Something about the money, the glory, the trips, and whatnot. But that isn’t the driving force – or even an option – in many of these smaller communities. The only thing to thrive on is power itself and when that power is abused by someone we sit next to in church, at the ball field, or the family reunion, it’s a different level of betrayal. It would be too uncomfortable to talk about it publicly or try to redirect someone in ‘power,’ so instead it all goes undiscussed and we move on to the spin cycle – the point at which it spins out of control and too quickly for the eye to master. It’s only three more years of the spin cycle and by then, the community just hopes someone new will come along with ideas to offer the community the change it has long desired.
The ease by which someone becomes entrenched in the system and cycle of power is alarming. Only in instances where a public servant has a disdain for the “benefits” of public service does one’s servants heart guide them for their entire tenure. Only when the public is present to hold the stewards of our tax dollars accountable does the steward stay in the lane towards progress. Only when the two partner together to combat the same cause will there be success. And without all three, the efforts to enlist a newbie are wasted.