Centre County political party chairmen Daryl Schafer and Greg Stewart both have served in municipal government, so they understand the benefits and challenges to running for local office.
Now they’re on the side of recruiting candidates to do the same, and that’s also a challenge.
Last week was the deadline for Democratic and Republican candidates to file petitions, making them eligible to appear on the May 21 municipal election ballots. The compiled list of candidates shows a few races, and equal numbers of seats and candidates, but many empty positions.
Centre Hall, for example, will have openings this year for mayor, Borough Council, auditor, tax collector and constable — seats for every position possible — and no one filed to run for any of them.
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It’s unclear whether a lack of candidates means people are satisfied with the way their governments run, or if the empty slots are a matter of apathy.
“It’s very hard to figure out why people have decided not to run,” said Michael Berkman, a Penn State political science professor. “In a local election, almost anybody might be legitimately a candidate, though they might not think of themselves having the skills to participate that way.”
Once county elections officials compiled the list of candidates filing petitions by last week’s deadline, assistant Director Jodi Neidig said the number of filings wasn’t surprising for a municipal election.
Schafer, the chairman of the Centre County Republican Party, said his committee hopes to learn more about the reasons behind the number of openings this year. He said he’ll be going to those municipalities to learn more.
“If they’re satisfied with the local officials, you may not see a lot of change, unless someone decides to retire,” he said. He added that he would be interested to find out how long the officials served who created the vacancies. “A lot of times, at the local level, you have officials who have been in place for 20 or 25 years and now they have to go through the process of finding somebody new.”
Serving in local government can be a big time commitment, with at least one monthly, evening meeting, and the time it takes to prepare for issue discussions, plus any special or additional meetings. In the Centre Region, that includes Council of Governments committee meetings for borough council members and township supervisors.
Schafer was elected as a Haines Township supervisor in 2003. People asked him to run at the time and he’s still serving, now as chairman.
“They jokingly told me it was one meeting a month and four or five phone calls,” he said. “I knew that was an underestimation. The time commitment is probably the biggest hurdle that candidates need to get over.”
Both county committees held events for prospective candidates ahead of the first day to file election petitions in February, offering information on how to circulate and file petitions, in which offices candidates can cross-file and generally what it’s like to run for local office.
“I think we had 15 people and not everybody was willing to run this year,” said Stewart, chairman of the Centre County Democratic Committee. “Some are waiting until the next cycle. Some people I know who came did file.”
The committees put the word out early to see where openings would be, if current officials had ideas for potential candidates, and who might be qualified. Stewart said he asked school board members, for example, if they knew people who showed interest in district activities or frequently attend meetings.
That’s how Stewart got on the Ferguson Township Planning Commission, on which he spent five years.
“I went to a meeting because they were looking at rezoning a farm next to my house” and he had some concerns and suggestions, he said. “The next day, I get a phone call from the township manager saying, by the way, we have an opening on the Planning Commission. So I did it and it was a good experience.”
Stewart left the position when Cub and Girl Scout activities and other family commitments started taking up more of his time.
“A lot of times, people are so tied up with their families,” he said. “And I think that’s why you see all these vacancies.”
Schafer said his committee will speak to people in municipalities with vacancies to seek interested and qualified potential candidates before the primary. He said he’s not sure if anyone is considering a write-in effort for district attorney. Democratic incumbent Stacy Parks Miller currently is running unopposed, and a write-in primary candidate would require 250 votes.
“It’s one of those things when there’s no candidate who felt comfortable submitting a petition and getting on the ballot,” Schafer said. “You can’t just recruit anybody. That is a major race.”
Berkman said people are unlikely to run write-in campaigns against incumbents and would pull back if they see a race they don’t think they can win.
Stewart said big issues, like the Ram Centre in the Penns Valley Area School District and the high school project in the State College Area School District, can either draw many candidates or none. As it stands, 11 candidates are running for five seats in Penns Valley and five candidates are running for four seats in State College.
“It has both affects,” Stewart said. “They’re fired up to run or they don’t want the headache.”