“I’ll picture it for you like this,” Canby Mayor Brian Hodson says as he grabs the small cup of ranch. He pours a small dot of ranch on the plate, saying, “This whole cup is the income the government gets from taxpayers, and this, this is what the local governments get from taxpayers.”
This is a representative of what local governments, one of which every town, big or small, in America has to deal with. This is one of the many disadvantages that local government has, and creates a very unique challenge.
Arguably the largest issue our country faces is how to bridge the divide between the two political parties in our nation. I am not going to say I have the answer, but I do have a potential solution: Don’t. I am not sure the divide can ever be bridged, so don’t try to bridge it. Find a way around the divide, and that way around is local government.
Local leadership is arguably the most important and has the most direct impact on you, those in the community, and also those you care about the most. Focus on the people around you and who you directly elect into office. Hold local officials accountable for their actions, plead for what you think is right with these people, and make sure they are in office for the right reasons.
These people can directly help build the community one wants to live in, and chances are they want it too. Local leaders aren’t perfect, but chances are they share more in common with most citizens than many politicians.
According to OpenSecrets.org, over 50% of politicians within the 116th Congress are millionaires. Brian Hodson works as a manager of a nursing home — a job of he says “requires a great deal of patience and just doing whatever comes up that day.”
In a typical day, Brian might be found helping fix plumbing (something he’s not trained in, but a quick YouTube tutorial can sometimes work wonders), help pick up patients from their doctor’s appointments, and manage a staff that is severely shorthanded right now. It is a challenge, but one he is up to.
A great majority of those within local government are just normal people. They are not millionaires, aren’t trying to profit or feed an agenda, they just want to make the community better.
Many thoughts rolled through my mind as I was walking down Grant Street in downtown Canby, Oregon, headed to the Backstop Bar and Grill. I had been contemplating what exactly I wanted to discuss with Mr. Hodson, the current mayor of Canby, Ore., but one thing I knew I wanted to discuss was the effect strong local leadership can have on division.
For Mayor Hodson, his answer is to stay neutral as best as possible. It technically is part of the job, as all county and local elected officials are officially considered “nonpartisan.” For some, this is a formality, but for others, it is a strength. In his opinion, staying neutral means “being open to hearing anybody.”
“Learning and listening are very important to lead,” Hodson says. “I listen to anyone who has ideas, if somebody has an idea on how to improve our community, I want to hear it.”
Neutrality plants the seeds for great dialog and allows for tough conversations to be had. Many times on a national scale, issues seem far too large and solutions are so momentous that it is difficult to comprehend. At the local level, these issues are on a smaller scale and have a larger impact.
Neutrality is how those conversations can be had, with the common ground of knowing you are from the same community, and want to make the community a better place. Difficult conversations need to happen now in a time of global strife, and those can easily happen on a local level.
Politics and government are two separate things. Government isn’t something that has always intrigued him, and politics certainly does not. Rather, after years of what seemed like dead-stop progress on the local level, Hodson decided to get involved.
He decided to join the Canby Chamber of Commerce, a group of Canby area citizens/business owners dedicated to the betterment of the Canby community. From there, he said he was urged by many to fill one of the vacant city council seats, so he obliged.
After deciding to run, he quickly realized the game he was getting into, the game of politics. This provided a shock to him, realizing the games that were being played with votes, decisions based on red/blue, right/left.
“Left/right, blue/red doesn’t matter to me,” he told me. “If I am going to do something, I want it to make our community better and I don’t care if that upsets those who are Republican or Democrat.”
As we talked about some of the divisions that had been plaguing the nation, these words began to stick with me. At the end of the day, I truly believe that the actions one takes are out of wanting to make their community better. The problem is, many are far too focused on what happens in Washington and on what many national figureheads are doing.
These national officials are important, a point that I don’t want to undersell. Rather, I think that the decisions and actions of local government officials are just as important, but get a small fraction of the resources and an even smaller fraction of the attention. The actions of the school board directly impact how one learns, the actions of the city council affect the well-being and quality of the town.
These are things that affect the day-to-day life of those who live in their community that many are not even aware of. These decisions also indirectly affect the future outlook of the community. A school board’s decisions on whether or not to expand foreign languages within their system, a city council’s decision to build another park or update the quality of roads could have huge effects on the future outlook of that community.
Despite these things that have large impacts, they still receive little attention from many community members. A story about a large national event receives much more attention than a local event. How does a leader deal with this?
“It makes my job tough,” Mayor Hodson says. “A lot of the things we get done do not receive much attention, and do not allow for me to hear from as many people as I would like because they just are not aware of some of the things we are doing.”
This becomes a bit of a problem when those you are trying to serve really just aren’t as invested as they should. How does one deal with this?
“You do with what you can,” Hodson says. “Talk to who is invested, who does care, and those who are concerned with what happens, but at the end of the day, my only goal is to make the community better.”
“How do you get more people invested in what happens?” I ask.
“It’s a lot harder than it sounds because it really comes down to people’s time,” says Mayor Hodson. “Many don’t have time to look at many of the proposals in the community, read the local news, and get invested into the community more than they already are.”
Time is the ultimate resource. At the end of the day, the decision to focus on local news and government comes down to time. It is much more convenient to just turn on cable news and watch CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc., instead of pulling up an online newspaper or listening in on city council/school board meetings. It’s understandable but does not make the situation any better.
“I think that one thing that can be done is improve the access to information,” Hodson says. “We are lucky here in town to have two different publications, the older print Canby Herald and the online Canby Current. If it weren’t for them, many would not hear about anything.”
Access to information is vital to citizens in order to be informed on the doings of the Government. If it weren’t for these publications, it would be hugely more difficult for those that want to be involved.
At the end of the day, division happens. The nature of democracy is inherently divisive as it causes one to take a side on a given topic. New thoughts and ideas are displayed every day as either majority or dissenting opinions, and are thought of as wrong until proven correct or adopted as common knowledge.
Most importantly, this division is the root strength of democracy. Division creates deliberation. This deliberation leads to progress and the adoption of new social norms and laws. Throughout time, there has not been a more tried and true way of progressing a society than democracy.
Change is slow, much slower than it should be, and requires most to get on board. The best way to accomplish this is through strength at the local level. It takes small steps first to make a giant leap. Seek dissent and discourse to further one’s understanding of what is important.
As Mayor Hodson told me: “Always be willing to learn and always be willing to listen. Learning and listening are how you grow and become a better person, and it allows us to all get better as a society”.
Josh Oakley is a 2020 Canby High School graduate and a freshman at Linfield University. He plans to major in sports management and political science. He enjoys playing golf, watching sports, and hanging out with friends and family. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 971-266-9995.
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