COLUMN: Take advantage of privilege: be an informed voter

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:31 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On April 6, the polls will open for local elections in Columbia and Boone County — mayor, City Council seats, School Board members, various boards and local ballot issues put to the people for a vote. The importance of local elections was impressed upon me in the 1970s by a politically astute Capitol Hill acquaintance, former House Speaker, Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, whose oft repeated declaration "all politics is local" should be taken to heart by the electorate.

The political acumen represented in his comment should be obvious to all who have an interest in ensuring the best and most responsive government possible. The political process begins at home, at the county and city level. It is here that our future legislators/executives are trained and, equally as important, where the concerned citizen gains the opportunity to serve.

The typically low turnouts in our local elections are a sad commentary on the apathy of a majority of the voting public and an affront to the office of the county clerk and the hundreds of people who toil in anonymity to make the election happen. It should be similarly embarrassing to that voter who shows up at the polls uninformed and unprepared to cast a ballot.

I will not presume to advise the reader how or for whom to vote for two reasons: first, unlike my syndicated mainstream media colleagues, I do not have all the answers. Secondly, I doubt my advice would sway any voter. In preparing oneself for a visit to the voting booth, there are certain research and thought processes to ensure an educated voice at the ballot box. These and the application of logic and common sense are vital.

With the office of mayor and two city council seats in play, you have an opportunity to influence more than 40 percent of our city government. A good rule of thumb in the choice of whom will represent you is evaluating each candidate's demonstrated leadership and executive experience in decision making roles, integrity, character, capacity for independent thought and potential for guiding the growth of the community by attracting businesses and contributing residents.

Our present city council is an intelligent body of individuals whose civic pride and aspirations are borne of the best of intentions. However, for some time, the intent has exceeded performance. An executive and lawmaking entity that continually allows itself to be wrapped around the axle with minutiae such as bicycle harassment laws, bicycle paths, chickens in the city limits, order of seating at council meetings and unwarranted meddling with the internal policies of the police and the city manager is hardly an attractive advertisement for new businesses and new residents.

Virtually everyone is favorably impressed with the Columbia School District's current leadership in the person of Dr. Belcher. He is articulate, persuasive and knowledgeable — his addresses are reminiscent of the old TV commercial: "When E. F. Hutton speaks, everyone listens." He advocates a yes vote for the school district question to issue bonds for construction of the new high school and other renovation/remodeling projects for sound reasons. And, when considering the school board candidates, you must decide which is the best to both complement the superintendent and guide the school system.

The ballot issue attracting the most interest is the city's Proposition 1, the authorization of safety surveillance cameras downtown. Other than the cost issue, the primary opposition to the cameras lies in their alleged invasion of privacy or the notion that expenditure of public funds is not authorized for protection of private property — surveillance is the business or property owner's responsibility.

Neither passes the credibility test. There is, nor has there ever, existed an expectation of privacy in the public arena. And the cameras offer a venue to identify perpetrators of crimes against the public, as well as private enterprises. To cast an informed vote on this issue, one must determine:

  • Do the cameras offer a reasonable expectancy of success?
  • Are they cost effective?
  • Can the city afford the expense?
  • What will be the effectiveness of the cameras as determined by the Chief of Police?

The right to vote is one of our most cherished and hard won freedoms, one not enjoyed universally. Accompanying that privilege is an obligation to understand the issues and to know the candidates. Accordingly, I have no compunction in admonishing those who have neither the interest nor the initiative to cast an informed ballot to do the city and county a favor and stay home Election Day.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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