The 2008 elections are a chance for the country to make a fresh break with failed policies on Iraq, the economy, energy, health care and other major issues. But local elections, further down the ballot, also will shape the look and feel of our community for decades to come. Voters should look for candidates who possess vision, display competence and judgment and whose ethics and candor rise to the level we deserve from public servants.
Almost every major local story in recent years has had one thing in common. The scandals and leading political decisions of the day have reflected the quality of our public officials. Whether it was the Pinellas property appraiser selling his land to the county, or Hillsborough County's elections supervisor mishandling the democratic process, voters on both sides of Tampa Bay have been amply reminded of how important local elections are — even for offices whose responsibilities are viewed as mere process jobs.
The outcome of local races and referendums on this year's ballot will have an impact for generations. Hillsborough voters will decide whether to create a county mayor, which would be the most dramatic change to the balance of power in the county and across the region in a quarter-century. Though the Tampa Bay Rays canceled a vote on a new stadium deal, the issue of keeping the team here, viable and in a new venue, is still very much alive — and one that the county must come to grips with. The effort by residents in St. Pete Beach to control development through the ballot is a microcosm of the battle statewide that has huge implications for Florida's growth. By next year, a new regional board must offer a multimodal transportation plan for seven counties along the Gulf Coast. In all these cases, locally elected officials will not only be involved but the major voices in shaping the debate.
If those voices are expected to carry the arguments, pro and con, they certainly must be credible. That's why voters should vet the candidates, examine their agendas and backgrounds and conceive of them in leadership positions. Even the mundane decisions these office-holders will make in the coming years are breathtaking for their size, expense and scope: where to build landfills and incinerators, what to do about aging cities and crowding suburbs, how to provide and afford the billions of gallons in needed drinking water resources.
Solving these problems was hard enough before the housing bubble and a slowing economy raised fundamental challenges for a state with a narrow, regressive tax base. That's why voters cannot — as typically happens — allow their participation to drop as races appear further down the ballot. The stakes for now and the future are too important to give just anyone the reins of our community.