Civically Engaging with Alex Zank

Governance on all levels deserve scrutiny


Story by Alex Zank, OP/Ed Editor

Nearly everyone knows the name of the president. He is the man who got another stimulus package through shortly after his first term, pushed for (and got) a major healthcare bill and signed many executive orders dealing with issues Congress has not, including gun control and a minimum wage increase.

What I’m willing to bet is a sadly tiny number of people attending UW-Eau Claire know the name of the president of the Eau Claire City Council or even the president of our own Student Senate. This just doesn’t make sense.

If you think about it, isn’t it weird that we’d know more about the ongoings of government at the federal level but not the state or local governments that have a more direct impact on our daily lives?

I’m not about to argue what’s done on the federal level is no less important. It still definitely affects us. But consider this: the federal government may spend weeks arguing an immigration bill, and we do have a portion of the population in western Wisconsin with an immediate interest in the subject because they could in some way be affected. The president could also be pushing an agenda of tax credits for businesses that invest in green energy, and we may have some businesses in Eau Claire benefit from these in some way.

But how about enforcing sidewalk shoveling laws or funding the construction of new buildings that would effectively raise property taxes in an area? President Barack Obama would probably like us to clean our sidewalks regularly, but he is not ever going to send out an enforcement team to ensure we’re doing so. This is what local governments do, along with so much more that impacts virtually every single person in the area.

With the spring elections approaching in a few weeks, voters have some important choices to make. There’s a contested race for the City Council presidency, and the two candidates — incumbent Kerry Kincaid and challenger Monica Lewis — have drastically different platforms.

We also will have a say of what we think about the Confluence Project at the polls. The university has a huge interest (as do we students, whether we know it or not) in its construction to improve the university’s competitiveness and appeal, and with a spike in educational quality is also the lasting impact it would have on our degrees’ reputations.

Let’s not forget about Student Senate, either. Managing Editor Nick Erickson mentioned in his Op/Ed last week we’re paying $426 per student in segregated fees (we’re set to pay more next year), which Senate controls. These members are elected every spring semester with a mandate of nil.

The voter turnout for these elections are dastardly low: 934 students voted in last spring’s election, while the year before boasted a turnout of about 470.

I covered Student Senate for two semesters, and the most frustration I had with the beat was talking to students who didn’t know what issues Senate was tackling, yet when they talked with me, most seemed to realize they had a vested interest in the governing body.

So what happens when you have an entire body of elected officials governs a population that pays such little attention to what the body is doing? From my experiences, these officials tend to get their mandates from other places rather than serve a population that largely ignores them.

I’ve seen this happen in several instances throughout my academic career here. I’ve witnessed Senate vote against popular student opinion on the Blugold Commitment and overturn a previous campus-wide referendum.

Of course, Senate largely does good work. I’m not writing this column to deny that. I’m simply using these examples as a warning of what can happen when an electorate doesn’t pay attention to a governing body.

Going forward, I hope students consider the importance of all levels of government. If we know what’s going on at the federal level, that’s great But if we take the time to be informed at the local level, we’d be even better off.