Editorials

Democrat, Republican irrelevant at county level

We can't muster much outrage over Franklin County's recent flap regarding the envelopes that will carry mail-in ballots to every registered voter.

The minor issue was resolved in a hurry without much fuss, thanks to Auditor Zona Lenhart. We're glad it's over before it started.

But the partisan shadow hanging over the affair remains a concern. What's the point of injecting party politics into an administrative position like county auditor?

Brad Peck, chairman of the county commission, recently drafted a resolution that would keep Lenhart's name from appearing on the envelopes.

It was bad form for Peck to bring up the issue for discussion without first alerting Lenhart. After all, her office is literally footsteps away from the commissioners' meeting room.

But bringing a proposal to the table that wasn't included on the board's agenda even was worse form.

The state's open meetings law doesn't require elected bodies to limit discussions to published agenda items, but perhaps it should.

Certainly, the absence of any advance notice about pending actions makes it tough for the public to be part of the process.

But methods aside, Peck has a point.

Name recognition is a valuable commodity in political campaigns, and incumbents like Lenhart -- who was first elected in 1989 -- already enjoy a huge advantage.

Printing Lenhart's name on the ballot envelopes seems minor compared with the boost she gets from 20 years in office. Still, it's not farfetched for Peck to see it as an advantage over her opponent.

It's not clear, however, that county commissioners have the authority to decide what appears on materials sent from the auditor's office. As an elected official, the auditor answers directly to voters -- not the board of commissioners.

Fortunately, Lenhart put the issue to rest with a phone call to the printing company. The amended order for 100,000 envelopes for the primary and general elections excludes her name.

Kudos to Lenhart for the direct way she eliminated any chance of an extended conflict over the envelopes.

Too bad she can't just as easily eliminate party politics from the auditor's race.

Partisanship has its place. It makes perfect sense for state legislatures and Congress -- where the elected officials align themselves in caucuses.

But at the county level, the focus on party affiliation is a distraction from the only issue that really counts -- the candidate's ability to perform the job.

That was made clear a few years ago, when most of Benton County's elected officials left the Democrats to join the GOP.

Assessor Barbara Wagner, Coroner Floyd Johnson, Auditor Bobbie Gagner and Sheriff Larry Taylor all jumped sides. What made the switch so important?

Nothing.

The same people were performing the same jobs exactly as they had before changing parties.

Peck is a Republican, and Lenhart is a Democrat. That's fueling speculation about Peck's motives.

Instead of talking about Republican challenger Matt Beaton's qualifications for the auditor's job, the buzz is about Peck's involvement in the campaign.

In other words, partisanship already is a distraction from the real issue -- deciding who is best for the job.

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