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Benefield: Why are so many elected officials walking away (and why should we be worried)?

Add Willy Linares to the growing list of people in Sonoma County elected to public office who have bowed out before their term is complete.

Linares, who was elected in November 2020, submitted his notice of resignation Monday. That’s before he’s completed half of his term.

That follows three early departures in 2021 from the five-seat council in Sonoma, all within six months.

In May 2021, Cloverdale Mayor Jason Turner announced he would be leaving immediately, well before his term expired.

Then late last year Sonoma County’s largest city faced a vacancy when Santa Rosa councilman Jack Tibbetts announced his resignation 13 months after being elected to a second term.

It’s a troubling trend for a number of reasons.

Those of us who vote (and in Sonoma County that is most of us) presumably take time and care before making our picks.

But, increasingly, those picks are quitting before the job is done. It’s hard not to feel burned.

Public service is not for the faint of heart. And that is truer today than in times past. The volume and the heat has clearly turned up a notch or two since at least 2016.

But those who throw their hat in the ring, those who campaign and spend money and seek endorsements and debate and door-knock, they presumably have an idea of the commitment involved with the job they are shooting for, right?

Aren’t we as voters getting ripped off when we elect a candidate who then leaves office before the term is up?

Isn’t it a waste of money to have all of these special elections?

And isn’t it undemocratic for a sitting council of, say, four or six people, to pick a replacement for a duly elected representative who likely got votes numbering in the thousands?

I got myself fairly riled up mulling these questions for what feels like the umpteenth time in the past 18 months.

Slow down, San Francisco State University’s Jason McDaniel told me.

The associate professor of political science said the default on this trend should not be cynicism. At least not for the positions we are talking about.

We can thank former President Donald Trump for a surge in political involvement, perhaps as a way to counter feelings of despondency he inspired.

People of color, women and underrepresented communities have rallied to support candidates for local, state and federal office, McDaniel said.

Grassroots organizing has worked in many ways. It’s resulted in a wave of first-time candidates and first-time officeholders.

“There were a lot of people in this wave, where a lot of people entered public service,” he said. “And this is a good thing.”

But the reality is often this: It’s hard. It’s hard to balance family and a full-time job with an elected (and largely volunteer) position that never fails to take up more time and energy than anticipated.

And the punishment is often public and constant.

Remember when a trash can filled with fireworks was torched outside of Linares’ home last summer after he voiced support for a fireworks ban?

So it’s not outrageous that people reconsider once the realities of holding office sink in.

“That would be a reflection on us, not them,” McDaniel said.

Combine the intense time demands with tiny stipends and it’s no wonder candidate pools are often filled with well-to-do folks and/or retirees.

Both Linares and Tibbetts cited their young families in reasons for stepping down. Turner referenced work demands.

It’s not a great foundation on which to base representative democracy.

The fallout is that people walk away. And we are left with either appointed replacements or yet more elections.

And, if we are being honest, feelings of bitterness.

Even with solutions — appointments, special elections — baked into the system, the problem feels acute.

Just look at the city of Sonoma.

In June, two-term councilwoman Amy Harrington announced she was resigning mid-term.

In January, Rachel Hundley cited work demands as her reason for resigning. In June, just weeks before Harrington’s announcement, then-Mayor Logan Harvey resigned. He said he was moving out of state.

In the first two cases, remaining council members appointed replacements — Kelso Barnett for Hundley and Robert Felder for Harvey.

But Harrington’s replacement couldn’t legally be handled the same way, according to Deva Marie Proto, the Sonoma County clerk-recorder-assessor and registrar of voters.

The council had no choice but to call an election at that point, because a five-person board can’t have three appointed members, Proto said.

It’s a rule one would expect no city to run afoul of, but these are strange times.

In a special election to replace Harrington, which cost $37,400, Sandra Lowe won the seat.

It’s hard to keep up.

This seemingly unending run of redos is certainly not the main reason waves of election officials across the country — election officials, not elected officials — are also walking away from their posts, but it can’t be dismissed.

We are not meant to have this many elections.

I’m for accountability and I’m for transparency. And I sure wish people would stay on the job they were elected to do.

But I also think serving in local elected positions in which they make $5,800 a year shouldn’t chew people up and spit them out.

Instead of pointing the finger at the folks who walk away, it might be time to dig into the reasons they do so.

“Being a politician is not easy. They are real people,” McDaniel said. “Too much of our culture treats them as if they are all corrupt sellouts, the idea that they are all political schemers.”

“The idea is that they are trying to get one over on us,” he said. “But they are us.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

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