Sunday, September 10, 2000

Filling offices can be tough

Small-town ballots sparse

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In some of the Tristate's smallest cities, the elected officials wield a snowplow in the winter and a lawn mower in the summer. Some have even dredged a lake or two between city government meetings.

        The pay for being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week: nothing to $20 per government meeting.

        And when these small-town officials meet, it's more likely to be in a firehouse or a even floral shop than at a city hall.

        Is it any wonder then that small towns such as Mentor, Ky. are struggling to put names on their ballots this year?

        While bigger cities such as Ludlow and Independence have more candidates than ever on the Nov. 7 ballot, at least five Northern Kentucky cities don't have enough people running for the available seats, and four — California, Woodlawn, Latonia Lakes and Mentor — have no one running at all.

        In these towns, which resemble neighborhoods more than cities, it's tradition to choose their elected officials with write-in votes.

        No one campaigns. No need for fund-raisers.

        Mentor is so small, it doesn't take long for word to get around if someone's willing to be a write-in candidate, says Matthew Franck, a 35-year-old father of two who has been mayor about seven years.

        “Once you get in office, you're in for life, unless you refuse to do it again,” he said.

        Mentor is a mostly residential city of about 170 people living on a square mile of Ohio riverfront, just off Ky. 8, in Campbell County. The only paved street in town is Main Street.

        Mentor city government meets once a month on the Mentor Baptist Church steps “when it's nice out,” Mr. Franck said. “When it's not so nice, we move inside.”

        Mr. Franck compares his native town to fictional Mayberry.

        “Everyone knows you, and you know them,” he said. “If you have a problem, your neighbor's right there to help you.”

        That's a bigger job, if you're mayor.

        Unlike their counterparts in cities where the population is counted in thousands, not hundreds, small-town mayors and city officials are more likely to roll up their shirt sleeves and cut grass at the local ball field, or clean and paint public facilities themselves instead of contracting the work out.

        “If we have a problem with the street, all of us are out fixing it,” Mr. Franck said.

        “It's not unusual for us to be out blacktopping or pushing snow. Last year, I even had to go out and pressure-wash the street when the garbage collector made a mess.”

        But few civic-minded public servants have that time, elections officials say, so many of them don't run for office. Most of the people who end up serving on small governments are retirees or reluctant recruits pressured by friends and neighbors, some officials said.

        Emma Jean Neises, 61, has been on California, Ky.'s City Commission since she was about 24. She has never filed for election. She also doubles as clerk for the Campbell County city of about 130.

        For one thing, the nominal filing fees are a barrier. Candidates for local offices offering little or no compensation say they don't want to pay the filing fees, so they rely on write-in candidacy.

        In Kentucky, the filing fee is $20 for candidates in fifth- and sixth-class cities, and $50 for candidates in larger municipalities. Fees vary in Ohio, depending on the government charter, but they average about $30 per candidate, elections officials said.

        “We don't file, because it'd just be the same ones running each time, and there ain't no sense spending any money,” Ms. Neises said.

        Ohio has no municipal races on the ballot this fall. Usually, though, its small towns such as Jacksonburg, a Butler County village of 54, traditionally elect their entire governments by write-in votes.

        “Most of them have lived there for years, and it's like a little family,” said Bob Mosketti, director of the Butler County Board of Elections. “Usually on the write-in filing deadline, one of (the council members) brings in everyone's names.”

        While write-in votes serve an important function, they can be a major hassle for elections workers, county clerks said.

        Thanks to a 1994 law passed by the Kentucky General Assembly, elections workers no longer have to count the votes for bogus candidates, such as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.

        But the law didn't eliminate all the nuisance write-ins. In Kentucky's smallest cities, for instance, voters can write in any qualified resident's name on a ballot.

        “In the 1996 presidential election, we had a guy in Fort Mitchell who wrote his name on every race on the ballot,” said Kenton County Clerk Bill Aylor. “He just took up a lot of time and caused the lines to get longer.”

        Write-ins also can be confusing.

        “Several years ago, we had the Smith family from Crestview,” Mr. Snodgrass said.

        “The father and son's first names were exactly the same, so we weren't sure which Smith was the winner. We called the father, and he said, "I don't want it.' So we checked with his son and found out he was the one who was running.”


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