Dear Candidates: Save yourselves the oxygen

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 28, 2004

About two weeks ago, I sat down to lunch with a couple of acquaintances and began the most fruitless conversation I’ve been part of in nearly two weeks.

Our purpose, of course, was to eat. Our reason for talking, of course, was to look normal. (We didn’t want to sit at a table and stare at our plates because others in the room would have thought we were weird.)

The conversation we had could have been about anything: temperamental golfers, uptight writers. Instead, we chose to discuss the mayor’s race looming over Demopolis.

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In less than two months, we’ll elect a new mayor. Austin Caldwell, the fortress of our town, will slip into retirement leaving the city’s decisions to someone new. Picking that someone, we surmised, will be a difficult task. Figuring out what to ask the candidates may be even more difficult.

Around the table, kind of like show-and-tell, this small group of people began discussing the job of mayor. What in the world does a mayor do anyway?

The standard answers came out: Run council meetings; sign proclamations signifying Human Hair Loss Awareness Week in Demopolis; show up for all the ribbon cuttings.

One person at the table decided to get a bit more serious in the discussion. The mayor, he decided, brings new industry to town and makes sure the highways get four-laned.

I threw a handful of mashed potatoes at him. (Not really. They would have thrown me out of the restaurant. It would have been fun, though.)

As a member of society, and one who has asked every imaginable question about city government, I felt a duty to share my thoughts on the position of mayor. I’m no politician, and I’ve never run for public office, but the purpose of municipal politicians must not be twisted into some all-powerful post that misleads those who cast ballots.

If mayoral candidates give speeches and tell you they plan to four-lane U.S. Highway 80, tell them you’re not buying it.

If mayoral candidates tell you they’re going to bring 500-job industries to town, go listen to another candidate.

If mayoral candidates tell you they’re going to make sure we get an interstate through town, tell them to hop on the next car leaving one of our two-lane highways.

Sounds kind of pessimistic, huh?

Former Gov. Don Siegelman once told people in West Alabama and the Black Belt that he would make sure U.S. 80 was four laned before he left office. (He even said he’d get on a tractor and cut the dirt himself, if he had to.) Driven out U.S. 80 toward Mississippi lately? Siegelman spent a lot of time over in these parts a few years ago, but I never saw him in work boots.

We could go on and on about political candidates and their habits of promising whatever we want, but that’s not the point here.

Mayoral candidates, no matter if they’re in Demopolis or Eutaw or Linden, owe citizens some honest politicking. In order to do that, they must be honest about the job of mayor.

The man or woman elected mayor does not order the four-laning of any highway. Heck, the Governor of Alabama has a hard enough time doing that. A mayor does not go out and set up the specifics of an industry considering a move to town. And a mayor surely does not have a thing to do with whether or not an interstate passes through Demopolis.

Mayors must be able to smile. They must be able to shake hands and attend every single ribbon-cutting and sign checks approved by members of the city council. Mayors answer late-night phone calls and order street department employees to fix potholes on Main Street.

That’s not all they do, of course. Mayors make sure city clerks apply for every grant possible. They look for insurance companies that will charge city employees the least amount on their premiums. They make sure bids are sent out properly, and they ask tough questions when the bids aren’t prepared in time.

Our mayoral candidates need to be honest about the position they seek to obtain. Yes, their job is one of leadership, and under their terms, they want to see industrial expansion and wider roads.

A mayor, however, has absolutely no authority over what a private business decides or when a highway gets four-laned. Rather, the mayor is the custodian of the city. A mayor keeps the books in order and the citizens content. A mayor greets a distinguish guest with a big, brass, useless key to the city and then hopes the guest says something nice to the CEO of a potential industry.

We need a mayor who will look out for what we have, first. Our roads should be pot-hole free; the sidewalks should be weed-free; the Christmas parade should be packed; the budget should be balanced.

If a mayor can handle those responsibilities, the others fall into place. We have CEOs of existing industries who can recruit others here faster than a governor can. We have a chamber and industrial development director whose job it is to travel to Montgomery and work the phones for new prospects.

Save the oxygen, candidates. Promise to take care of what we have, share some ideas about nice amenities we might add, and watch the rest take care of itself.