The Ottumwa Courier

July 16, 2013

Finding candidates for elected office an uphill battle

By CHELSEA DAVIS Courier staff writer, twitter.com/chelsealeedavis
Ottumwa Courier

---- — OTTUMWA — Finding people to run for elected office in Ottumwa has always been a struggle, and with recent controversies, filling open seats has proven even more difficult.

Three City Council seats are up for grabs this fall as the terms for Councilmen Bob Meyers, Brian Morgan and Jeremy Weller end in January. But only three people have taken out papers so far: Meyers, Robert LaPoint and Dave Gordy.

Meyers is a current councilman and hopes to retain his seat. If elected, January would mark the beginning of his third term on council.

LaPoint, currently chairman of the Ottumwa Transit Advisory Board and member of the Ottumwa Parks Advisory Board, ran for mayor in 2011 but was booted out in the primary by candidate Frank Flanders and then-mayor Dale Uehling. Flanders went on to win the general election.

Gordy said he's "just a regular citizen" who's running because he wants to see more accountability in local government and he wants to be the "conservative take" on city finances.

The mayor's seat will appear on the ballot as well. Flanders has taken out papers as have three others: Morgan, Tom Lazio and Mitch Niner.

Morgan and Niner are current councilmen. Morgan's term ends this year and he has said he doesn't plan to run for his council seat again this fall. Niner is in the middle of his term as he was just re-elected in November 2011, but setting his sights on the mayoral seat could mean another opening on the council if he were to be elected.

City public information officer Tom Rodgers, who's watched the evolution of Ottumwa's council for years, said the majority of the public is all too aware of the time that must be committed by council members and the mayor. But divisive issues the past several years could also steer people away from running, he said.

"Bridge View Center is a good example," he said. "That was a very hard time on this community, and the council was under a lot of pressure from their decision to move forward with it, and there was a lot of opposition. And at that time, there were elected officials actively working against the project.

"I think sometimes the memory of those controversies ... turns people off to the idea of serving in elected office."

Council members have to be intellectual, articulate and thorough in their research in order to know what they're talking about, said Shannon Addison, a former council member.

"You've got to do your homework, especially on the controversial issues," she said. "Unless you've had some exposure to politics of some sort ... you may not have a clue as to how politics really do work — or don't. I think a lot of people are a little gun-shy of that."

And Ottumwans "have never been afraid to speak their mind," Rodgers said, since council members often face a lot of backlash.

"But as an elected official, that's kind of par for the course," he said.

The best city councils represent a wide cross-section of the community, he explained.

"We've had corporate executive types that served that were invaluable, and then we've had more blue-collar type folks serve, and they also brought a very unique perspective," he said. "So really, I think anybody who's interested in the community who's willing to learn and listen and be involved would be a good candidate."

It's never been easy finding Ottumwans willing to run for elected office, so when it comes time to vote, the candidates on the ballot are often elected simply because there were not enough candidates to choose from.

"I think a diversity of candidates in any situation just makes things better," he said. "You have more choices. You have more ideas coming to the table."

Women also rarely run for City Council or mayor in Ottumwa. Addison was the city's most recent female council member, whose first and only term ended in January 2010.

"It's always kind of baffled me because I think there are a lot of ladies in this community who would definitely be an asset to have on the council," Rodgers said. "They seem to do well at the polls, but getting them to sign up is another matter."

Addison agreed, noting several women in Ottumwa who would be "dynamite" on council.

She's one of only five women to ever be elected to Ottumwa's City Council. The other three were Laura Siegel — the first woman ever elected to Ottumwa's city council, in the mid-1980s — Sarah Sels, Darlene Peta and Rhea Huddleston.

"It used to be that it was always one person in the family who worked," Addison said. "A good portion of people in Ottumwa were that way until it became necessary for both people to start working in order to be able to survive. When that happened, we lost the ability to get people to be active."

But women have always seemed reluctant to run for a council that was predominantly male, she said.

"I think some are thinking, 'Will I even have a voice?'" Addison said. "And I think a lot of women either don't want to take the time or make the time. They're reluctant simply because they have a lot of responsibilities ... and they don't have the time to devote to council.

"There's a fear factor on some people's parts ... if they've never been through the process of going through the hoops you have to jump through to even get elected."

***In a previous version of this article, only four women were listed as ever having served on the Ottumwa city council. In fact, five women have served, including Rhea Huddleston, who was not originally mentioned.

Election information:

The filing period for council and mayor is Aug. 12-29, but prospective candidates can take out papers now to begin obtaining signatures.

Those running for council must obtain at least 71 signatures and those running for mayor must obtain at least 76. Those numbers are based on voter turnout from the last election.

Packets can be picked up at the city clerk's office at City Hall.

A primary will be held on Oct. 8 if seven or more candidates run for city council and if three or more candidates run for mayor.

From the primary, two mayoral candidates would move forward to the general election on Nov. 5, as would six council candidates.

-- Information courtesy of City Clerk Amanda Valent