Small Town, Small Experience

By Catherine Iino
Sunday, October 19, 2008

I serve on the Board of Selectmen of Killingworth, Conn., a town that has about the same population as Wasilla, Alaska, and I share Sarah Palin's affection for small-town life.

We have a cat named Rascal who lives in our town hall -- a converted farmhouse -- and likes to climb up on the selectmen's laps during meetings.

The meeting room was looking pretty dingy of late, so last month the first selectman picked out a color, and the town clerk and the director of finance painted it one weekend.

When someone in our town forgets to renew a dog license, the town clerk -- if she knows you don't have a lot of money -- might put in the $8 so that you won't have to pay the late penalty.

That's the way things work in our town and possibly in other places this size. I think about this as I listen to so many people saying that being the executive of a small town does not qualify you to be president of the United States. (Let's not fall into the fallacy that there are different credentials for the vice presidency. That heartbeat could fail at any time.)

It's clear to me that the very qualities that make small-town life so appealing make small-town experience detrimental preparation for national executive office.

It's been widely reported that Sarah Palin hired her friends for high offices and turned to her family for advice. You do that in a small town. The talent pool is limited. You know who is sensible, who gets things done, who is willing to donate time and energy. In my town, few positions -- appointed or elected -- are paid. Even the opportunities for graft and corruption are small potatoes. (Killingworth hasn't received any earmarks.) You call your friends and cajole them into serving on one more board or committee.

This is not the way you want the federal government to be administered. Everyone knows everyone in Wasilla and Killingworth, but obviously, you can't know everyone in the United States. We need the people heading federal departments and agencies to have knowledge, competence and track records that inspire public confidence. And we need a chief executive who knows how to seek advice from independent experts, not just her friends and family.

An extraordinary amount of the work of running a small town is done by volunteers. Killingworth volunteers have built a Little League field and a community garden, and they staff the fire department and the ambulance corps. The Board of Finance and the Planning and Zoning Commission are composed of volunteers.

Nationally, the way most of us volunteer our services is by paying our taxes. The president of the United States cannot simply call for volunteers to, say, rebuild the nation's roads and bridges. Yes, we have a volunteer army, but working with the local garden club to landscape a traffic circle provides no experience on how to deal with an institution on the scale of the U.S. military.

And while it is a privilege, to use Sarah Palin's word, to live in a town small enough that we can make special arrangements for someone who is too ill to come in and fill out an application for fuel assistance, the country cannot afford another administration that makes special arrangements for its cronies.

Of course, small towns have distinctive vices as well as virtues. Because we don't have many professional administrators, we reinvent a lot of wheels. Decades-long feuds often color political debates. Sometimes we cut the wrong people too much slack. We muddle through, and I wouldn't want to see Killingworth tie itself in red tape trying to prevent these problems. But you couldn't run Safeway Inc., much less the federal government, the way you run a farm stand.

There is an aspect of small-town life that we should do our best to send to the national level: the attitude toward our neighbors. We need to believe that we are a community, that we all must contribute to the common good. Small-town executive experience, however, would be a risky thing to send to Washington.


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