Saturday, January 27, 2007

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Groundhogs Vs. Politicians…
Who Can We Trust?

On February 2nd, whether we want to know or not, the news media will inform us if a groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania saw his shadow or not. Based on such conclusive scientific evidence, we will know if winter is to last another six weeks or not.

A few days later, on February 6th, a few hardy voters will emerge from their dens to vote in the non-partisan primary for Mayor. Based on their decision, we will know which campaigns for Mayor will last another nine weeks.

The name of the town which hosts Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney, derives from a Native American name which means ”town of the sandflies”. Which explains why they prefer to be known as the groundhog capital of the world.

Groundhog Day is rooted in ancient Northern European folklore. Of course they didn’t use groundhogs. That’s a strictly American twist. In Germany they used a badger and in other areas bears. I recently uncovered an even more obscure version involving a very unlikely animal that I promise to share with you later in this story.

Of course, just like Groundhog Day is a strictly American tradition, having a non-partisan Mayoral Primary is a strictly St. Charles innovation. We are the only community I’ve found that makes candidates for Mayor run two back-to-back campaigns. For candidates, it means raising twice the money. For voters it means living with political signs and mailers twice as long.

Having an election and campaign in the middle of winter doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m sure it’s fine for Eskimos and Canadians, but not a lot of people around here will trudge through snow to whittle their choice for Mayor from three candidates to two.

Given the proximity of a February 6th election to the past Christmas Season, the respective candidates for Mayor don’t get a lot of time to campaign. Which means voters don’t get a lot of time to know them.

A candidate forum, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, was a worthy attempt at voter education, but the format didn’t allow much time for follow up questions or deeper discussion of the issues. It needed to be more of a real debate. Instead, candidates were politely provided the five controlled questions well in advance.

Voters weren’t seeing the candidates for Mayor in their natural habitat…in the wild so to speak. Come to think of it, they use a fake tree stump to simulate a groundhog burrow in Punxsutawney as well.

Here is one example of where voters would be better off with more information. Sorry to pick on a particular candidate, but her comments on this topic got repeated in the press a few times and need to be cleared up. Former Mayor Grace Nichols said that the Mayor and Council were too wrapped up in squabbles to respond to the St. Charles School District closing two schools.

Painting things with a broad brush is helpful when say painting the broadside of a barn. It is not very helpful to understanding an issue such as this.

The City Council passed not one, but two resolutions calling on the School District not to close grade schools. I know, because I co-sponsored them, along with City Councilman Larry Muench. I personally met with the late Superintendent Jim Cale to argue against school closures. The entire Council met face-to-face with the School Board and this topic was a major part of those discussions.

We pointed out new sources of revenue for the schools including the hundreds of thousands a year the new Casino hotel will provide. We argued that closing schools was counter productive to neighborhood stabilization and helping property values.

While gracious and polite, a majority of the School Board simply felt that declining enrollment left them little choice, but to close schools. I disagree with their conclusions, but they are their own independently elected political body. The City of St. Charles has no legal authority over their decisions.

Had this been a proper debate, perhaps someone could have asked Grace Nichols a simple follow-up question. What would you have done to keep these schools open? Or, if you had a plan for keeping them open, why as a private citizen didn’t you come forward and share your plan? Or, why didn’t you just file for School Board?

There are no doubt questions people have for all three candidates, but in the short Municipal Primary season, there are few forums where they can be asked. Which begs the question, why do we have a non-partisan Primary for Mayor when no other community does?

This change to the Charter was proposed by former Councilman Richard Baum because he felt that former Mayor Bob Moeller had less of a “mandate” to govern since he had won with a plurality. Of course we can and have elected Presidents with a plurality of the popular vote.

I think voters should revisit the idea and I have placed discussion of the Primary on the next Council Work Session. Because we are the only political subdivision holding a February election, the bill from the County Election Authority is over $100,000! That’s how much City taxpayers are being stuck with for the privilege of say 20% of the voters going to the polls on February 6th to narrow the field from three to two candidates. If it snows, or God forbid we have an ice storm or power outages on that day, turnout could be far less. Not even a groundhog might show up to vote.

As I mentioned earlier, Groundhog Day is an ancient tradition. Even without the intervention of a weather forecasting mammal, people looked to the skies (not the ground) on Candlemas Day (February 2nd). An old English saying went:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

In Scotland there was a shortened version:

If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year.

For the peoples of Germany it went:

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May.

For the Pennsylvania Dutch settlers from Germany it evolved into:

If the sun shines on Groundhog Day,
Half the fuel and half the hay.

I promised you an even more obscure reference to the weather prognostication skills of a particular animal. This one so far had escaped the attention of the various references I checked for the history of Groundhog and Candlemas Day.

A few nights ago I was reading a play by English writer John Webster (1570 – 1625). In it was this curious reference:

Let all that belong to great men, remember th’ old wives’ tradition, to be like the lions i’th’ Tower on Candlemasday; to mourn the sun shine for fear of the pitiful remainder of winter to come.

I knew that the English monarchy kept a menagerie of exotic animals, including lions, at the Tower of London. That practice dates back to King John who reigned from 1199 to 1216. The last animals were removed in 1825.

Apparently it was already an “old wives tradition” by 1612 (the date John Webster’s play The White Devil was published) to note the long-range weather forecasting skills of lions in the Tower of London the same way we do the groundhog today.

Perhaps the knowledge that they’re carrying on a noble and ancient tradition, walking in the pawprints as it were of the King of Beasts, will add some “spring” to the step of the lowly groundhog this Candlemas Day.