Sunday night, as we put the finishing touches on hundreds districts for the launch of Run For Office, a searchable by address database of all the elected positions in the United States, my colleagues and I were shocked to see John Oliver’s piece on special districts. The timing was too good not to share a bit more about just how special special districts are.
1. A “special district” is just that: special….and strange.
Special districts are electoral districts created to do only one thing. Now, there are two ways of looking at this: either, they save all of their talent to do one thing awesomely or, they’re dumb. Take the beloved Moapa Valley Television Maintenance District in Clark County, NV...they’ve got one job to do and that’s improving television reception in the Moapa Valley area by receiving, boosting and rebroadcasting signals originating from Las Vegas and Utah stations. That’s some serious Netflix and chill action for the folks of Moapa Valley. Thanks, Moapa Valley Television Maintenance District commissioners.
2. Like grains of sand on a beach, there are a lot of special districts. How many? No one knows.
There’s no definitive number out there. Seriously, no one knows. That may be hard to believe because of our obsession with government accountability, but it’s due to two factors: 1) No one has tried to organize the information on special districts before and 2) It’s a big country, so special districts are being created and dissolved all the time. RunforOffice.org is working to compile information about every special District in the country for the first time ever. EVER. Stay tuned.
3. Special districts vary from across the country.
The Pacific Northwest is not only home to the exotic Sasquatch roaming our forests, but also the exotic Public Utility Districts, which are special districts that govern the sources of electricity and water for the community. Southern California, home of In-N-Out, excellent weather and the Castaic Lake Water Agency District, Palomar Health Care District, or the Big Bear Airport District. All uniquely suited to their local needs.
4. Even though special districts can seem really, really random, they are actually created for a reason.
Special districts are created to meet a recognized need in a community. Although people might groan when they see them on their election ballot, they are about a close as we get to direct democracy. They are an opportunity for everyday citizens to have an influence on public funds and how they’re spent. Sometimes the districts may become obsolete (and due to governmental law, they can be tricky to dissolve, which is silly) but the vast majority have a specific role to play in our public lives.
5. Special districts really want new candidates.
I’ve talked to well over a 100 people elected to special districts. Here’s the deal: a fair amount of them would love for someone new to come and take the reins, but when they see that no one else files to run, they run themselves. Many people are interested in serving in public office, but the process makes it difficult to find out what someone can run for and how to get on the ballot. That’s exactly why we started RunforOffice.org, so use it and give some of these longstanding elected officials a break!
6. As the Big Wheel is to the transportation ladder, the special district is the first rung in most people’s political careers.
My son loves ripping around the neighborhood on his Big Wheel, and next up is a bike, then a skateboard, then a hovercraft. Elected officials also climb a “ladder” of sorts, and many get involved in special districts as their first rung on the ladder. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada was first elected to his local board of trustees for a public hospital. Forty years later, a couple of black eyes and many years of incredible public service he is retiring from the U.S. Senate. Serving on a special district helps people understand if working in government is something that they’re cut out for, and it’s better to figure that out on a special district with one task at hand than when you’re midway through running for U.S. Congress.
7. Keep the paleo, low-carb crash diets to your personal life, not your civic one.
Basic democracy doesn’t have too many ingredients, but two of the big ones are: voters and candidates. When you don’t have the candidates, you’re messing up the recipe. When no one runs, someone is appointed to the position with zero input from the public. A 2014 William and Mary study showed that 40% of state legislative races go unopposed. That is for state-level offices! Imagine what this means at the special district level. We need more people to run.
8. John Oliver poked fun at special districts, but they play pivotal positions in many communities.
One area that they can make a big difference is with our public education system. Of course, there’s school boards everywhere, but there’s also publicly elected community college trustees. I first became aware of community college trustee boards because my sister was having a difficult time using her GI Bill, and I thought that the school should be more supportive of veterans going back to school. How do you steer a large institution towards making these decisions? Get directly involved in the leadership for that institution. We’re fortunate as Americans that we get to decide who is elected, and who runs!
Jim Cupples is the Director of RunForOffice.org the first ever searchable by address database of all the elected office in the U.S. for citizens to understand what, when and how they can can run for office.