By Pete Chalos
Where does real power reside in American politics? In concept, it resides in the hands of the people. The voters decide who gets elected and who gets the boot.
Often, the opportunity to boot someone out of office doesn’t come along soon enough to prevent one officeholder from making decisions that will negatively influence our city, state or nation for years to come. Thankfully, the way our government is split into three branches provides us with the recourse of electing another party into the legislature when the executive branch is running amok. The legislative branch can act as a check to the executive branch or vice versa. This system of checks and balances assures voters that we will have an opportunity to enact a change within a relatively short time span.
Representatives come up for election every two years, while state senators come up for election every four years. Governors come up for election every four years and U.S. senators come up for election every six years. This staggered system works well most of the time. Once in awhile, a party with an agenda gets ahold of two or three branches and forces their will upon the people for a period of time but the political pendulum inevitably swings back.
Unfortunately, checks, balances and term limits don’t apply to every facet of our government. Of the three branches of government, the judicial branch is often touted as the only branch with lifetime appointments. Once someone is appointed to the Supreme Court, they can stay in for life. However, this system of lifetime appointment isn’t limited to the Supreme Court or the judicial branch. It also takes place at the federal, state and local levels more than the average citizen may be aware.
There are a great number of boards and regulatory commissions throughout federal, state and city governments to which members are appointed by mayors, governors and presidents. Some of these appointments are lifetime positions. Some of them carry a great deal of authority. Those appointed to these boards and commissions effect policy for years and years without ever answering to the people because they don’t come up for election.
In some instances, once they are appointed, these officials don’t even answer to the appointing body. Members of these boards and commissions wield a great deal of power and influence.
Some examples at the federal level include the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and Homeland Security. Some examples at the state level include the State Highway Commission, the State Board of Health, the State Airport Authority, the Utility Regulatory Commission and the state Economic Development Board.
Some examples at the local level include the Economic Development Commission, the Redevelopment Commission, the Board of Works and Safety, the Housing Authority, the Area Plan Commission, the Zoning Appeals Board, the local Board of Health, the Sanitary Sewer District and the Parks Board.
These boards and commissions decide how and where public and private business is conducted. Each citizen is affected by their decisions. Yet, they are not elected officials. They are simply appointed by officials we elect.
In many cases, it’s for the best. We’d be at the ballot box every weekend if we had to fill every important staff position in government by election. However, in some cases the authorities on these various boards can run amok. They should answer to the people or at least to an office elected by the people. Without such a check, these boards can and sometimes do disregard the wishes of the citizenship and their elected officials to our detriment. Once appointed, there is no way to stop them barring legal action.
In my first term as mayor, I sometimes experienced resistance from board members who had been appointed by previous administrations. Some of them had to be removed by lawsuit. We felt as though these board members were not moving quick enough in promoting the city’s progress so we removed them and the courts supported our decision.
When you elect an official, keep in mind that you are trusting that official with the appointment of board members that may effect policy for years to come. Those board members will decide who gets zoned for a building project, who gets money for development, who gets shut down by the board of health, where sewers and infrastructure are built and what buildings get condemned. They can support an administration’s progress or severely impede it.
Make sure you vote for candidates who can be trusted to appoint the best men and women possible to boards and commissions. Sometimes, special interest groups support a particular candidate just to get one of their people appointed to a certain board. Voters should study who a candidate associates with. His associates could end up affecting policy long after he leaves office.
Pete Chalos, a longtime teacher, coach and public servant in Vigo County, was mayor of Terre Haute for 16 years. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.