One of the great things about Wisconsin democracy is the infrastructure of local government, which gives grass-roots candidates a chance to shape not just the makeup of town boards, village boards, city councils, school boards and county boards but the debate about issues that can — and must — be addressed in the communities where people live.

The April 3 elections in Dane County communities will fill hundreds of positions. These races don’t get as much attention as the madness of Donald Trump in Washington. But they should, because this is where the big ideas are coming from.

Several 2018 candidates have illustrated how individual contenders can remake the debate. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet has certainly done this by campaigning for the state Supreme Court as a champion of strict judicial recusal standards. By embracing reform proposals, which would limit the involvement of justices with cases involving campaign donors, Dallet has transformed the court race so thoroughly that even critics of the standards are talking about recusal.

Supporters of the Walker administration’s candidate, Michael Screnock, are now attacking Dallet for not being pure enough on the recusal issue. That’s cynical, as Screnock has a miserable record on judicial independence. But it is also a reminder that Dallet’s put reform on the agenda.

A candidate does not have to be running statewide in order to expand the discourse. Sun Prairie School Board member Marilyn Ruffin is seeking re-election as an especially savvy advocate for diversifying the staffs of public schools. Her advocacy for investing in “grow your own” programs for training teachers, as well as outreach to HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), reminds us that the need for diversification of teaching and administrative staffs is a countywide issue. “With changing demographics and the increasing numbers of students of color, in particular, being educated in the district, it is imperative that the district workforce starts to represent a percentage of the current, culturally diverse student population,” explained Ruffin, who said that a diverse school board must “walk the talk” by making it “a priority to create productive and effective strategies for recruiting and retaining diverse and culturally responsive staff and educators.”

Another candidate who has put a good deal of time and energy into opening up the debate is Dane County Board contender Yogesh Chawla. He has put issues of open government and participatory democracy front and center from the start of his own 6th District run, and has raised the profile of these issues countywide with groundbreaking proposals for using new technology to solve old problems.

With his “Open Source, Open Data, Open Government” initiative, Chawla has invited voters to join a tech-savvy and future-focused discussion about how to “make all government data available in a simple, accessible and standard format for download.” Chawla’s background as both an award-winning public safety software developer and a community activist has helped him to identify ways to open up local government and to make it more accessible, more functional and more engaging. For instance, he explained, “Most county government work is done in committees, not on the County Board floor. These committee meetings are not recorded and available to the general public, which reduces the ability of our residents to participate and leaves a gap in accountability for these public bodies. Modern streaming technology allows sharing video at the click of a button."

Chawla’s reform agenda is grounded in the realities of people’s day-to-day lives and is conscious of the barriers to democratic participation that exist even in the most liberal counties. Noting that the board currently limits the frequency of testimony at committee and board meetings, he argued: “Every constituent should be able to testify at any meeting on an agenda item within a reasonable time limit.” And he explained: “There are myriad ways to reach people through social media and electronic and print platforms. We must make sure meeting schedules are readily available, and that meetings are held at times and locations that maximize public participation.”

That’s the point: maximizing public participation.

There’s a growing recognition that this is the great challenge, and the great opportunity facing local government. The League of Women Voters of Dane County recently asked board candidates: “Should the County Board take steps to increase public engagement in board and committee deliberations? If so, what would you recommend? If not, why not?”

Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, District 2, gave an especially good response, laying out an agenda that was practical (“providing child care, transportation assistance and food at County Board hearings to remove barriers to public participation”) and visionary (“implementing a decision-making tool being developed by the Human Services Board to increase transparency and equity in county decision-making”). So, too, did Chawla’s opponent in the 6th District race, Pam Porter, an experienced activist and innovative thinker who said, “Government processes and decision-making shouldn’t be a puzzle. Too often they are. I’ll work to ensure Dane County’s actions are transparent and encourage citizens to be democratically engaged.”

To that end, Porter proposes to: “Create a transparency task force to identify new, creative ways (i.e. an app contest for digital applications) to engage the public and make government more open and accountable.” She’s also pushing for “making publicly available information more accessible and livestreaming county meetings.”

When it comes to developing issues, opening up debates and expanding the discourse, it’s refreshing when candidates compete by presenting bigger and better ideas. The democratic process requires candidates who are willing to step up and run for office. But the process is best served when candidates recognize the creative potential of the competition in which they have chosen to engage. No matter who voters back April 3, we should all celebrate the candidates who have made this election season what it should be: a competition of ideas.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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