Last year, no one in Echo filed to run for an open seat on the city council.
That left open an avenue for Lou Nakapalau to win the seat with only eight write-in votes in the November 2016 election.
It was later discovered that the councilman had been convicted of multiple counts of child pornography possession in 2000.
Nakapalau has used his time on the council to bring nationwide embarrassment to the small city. He used his Facebook account to tell a gay filmmaker in Hawaii: “When you croak of AIDS (Anally Injected Death Serum) I’ll spit on your grave.”
Media coverage of that comment, and Nakapalau’s unwillingness to apologize for it or even comment on it, brought an understandable backlash from some Echo residents against their city government. That backlash then spurred a backlash of its own, which created division and distrust in the community — from its political life to its downtown commerce to its public schools.
It’s a mess. And it doesn’t appear that mess will get cleaned up soon. Nakapalau has shown no signs of resigning his seat, and city council has no ability to throw him out under Oregon law. It’s up to residents to start a recall petition.
Gaining a seat on a city council or school board without filing for the ballot isn’t uncommon in Eastern Oregon, especially in smaller cities or for lower-profile positions.
In Hermiston, former city council candidate Mark Gomolski won a seat on the Hermiston School Board with just 14 write-in votes. Perhaps he was the best person for the job (and he has certainly done nothing to embarrass the city or school district) but we think it’s undemocratic that such a small percentage of Hermiston voters chose who got that important seat.
As we’ve said before, civic leadership can require a lot of work for very little thanks. It’s not a responsibility that people should take on lightly.
But the moral of the story is clear: If no one runs for important local positions with a desire to improve their city, school district, or cemetery district — you may get someone of questionable values and skills. You will definitely get someone who did not campaign for the seat, and may not be familiar with the issues and how residents feel about them. You will get someone who does not have the support of the majority of the electorate.
The best option, of course, is for many people to run for these positions, so voters can make an informed choice in a competitive race. That’s how a healthy, functioning democracy operates.
But at the very least, someone must run publicly for each seat. A name must be on the ballot, because that gives the electorate enough time to mount a write-in campaign if that name is not to their liking.
The risks are too great otherwise. An unqualified and unfit person can get a few votes and suddenly be misrepresenting your community and making decisions that negatively affect its future.