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Popular myth to the contrary, most U.S. politicians still work for nothing

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Mayor James Wiszowaty makes the first purchase at a Fred's store grand opening in Batesburg-Leesville, S.C. Wiszowaty is one of thousands of U.S. elected officials who work for no salary, but that number is dwindling. (Courtesy of Randy Fellers)

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Jim Wiszowaty, mayor of Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., is one of the thousands of U.S. elected officials who work for no salary, but the number of volunteer mayors, city council members and school board members is dwindling. (Courtesy of Randy Fellers)

In February, the combined campaign spending of Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton topped $70 million. Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain spent more than $8 million.

But when Peter Menke decided to run for mayor of Barnesville, Md., six years ago, he spent exactly zero dollars. He did, however, shake hands with a few of Barnesville’s 165 residents at the annual town potluck.

“It’s almost like the harder you try, the less likely they are to vote for you,” he said.

Of course, spending millions might be a bit of overkill, given the mayor’s annual salary of, well, nothing.

In an age when money is an ever-increasing part of the political system, the majority of citizens elected to serve on the nearly 90,000 local governments in the United States, which include school boards, town councils and fire districts, still do so as volunteers, campaigning on a shoestring and donating their time.

But the opportunities for such civic duty are fading as small towns disappear or get swallowed up by nearby municipalities.

There are 27,000 fewer local governments than in 1952, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Governments, released in March. A steep decline in the number of school boards caused much of the decrease, but the numbers also paint a picture of disappearing community governments.

Over the same period, 700 township governments have disappeared, including 110 in the last five years.

“The backbone for local government is volunteer service,” said James Flynn, director of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Delaware School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. “It goes back to the basic idea of this country, which was citizen-led government.”

Involvement in local government is “how we feel a sense of community and belonging,” Flynn said. “It would be an incredibly sad day if it ends.”

Peter Menke served on Barnesville’s city commission for 34 years before being elevated to lead the town six years ago. Since Barnesville has no official mayor, the city commissioner who gets the most votes is designated the unofficial head of city government.

Like many other small-town mayors, he is not paid for the roughly ten hours a week he spends on city projects like restoring the historic town hall and installing red light cameras to bust commuters speeding through on their way to Washington, D.C., 35 miles away.

Menke, who has lived in Barnesville his entire life, works as a Catholic school athletic director, and shares with his constituents the common goal of protecting their town from the encroachment of the ever-expanding nearby metropolis.

Admiring Barnesville, with its large lots and ample green spaces, is all the payment he needs, said Menke. “My job is rewarding, because we have a wonderful little town that was just as wonderful when I was a kid,” he said. “Hopefully, it will be wonderful for future generations.”

Mayor Pat Wick of Ramona, Kan., also hopes her town will be around for future generations, but her concerns do not focus on too much growth. The 120-year-old Central Kansas town, 12 miles from the nearest grocery store and 7 miles from the nearest gas station, is dying.

When Wick, who lived in Ramona as a child, moved back in 2000 after 35 years in Napa Valley, Calif., the condition of the town shocked her.

The population was aging, four out of five people lived in poverty and the town had little success attracting new residents. Morale was so low the mayor had to call around to get a quorum at city council meetings.

Wick, who runs a bed and breakfast, reluctantly became mayor five years ago, after her predecessor stepped down for health reasons. She decided to run again two years later to help revive the town.

For a whopping salary of $7 per month, she chairs city council meetings, applies for grants and, generally, encourages people to be more neighborly. Since there is no sheriff, she is the one dispatched when someone's grass is too tall or their dogs are too loud.

During her two terms in office, Wick has made it a goal to get to know everyone in town and improve morale. The city council has raised funds to put signs on the nearby highway--so motorists know the town they are zooming past exists--and build bathrooms in the city park.

Still, it has been an uphill climb. The town’s only restaurant closed three months ago when the owners moved away, and the Post Office--the only substantial business left in town--may be the next to go.

But Wick, who has decided to run for one more term, still has some optimism.

"We're working together now," she said.

Unlike Barnesville and Ramona, the town of Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., could probably afford to pay a full-time mayor, but James Wiszowaty, is not in it for the money, he said. He is in it for the challenge.

He spent about $8,000 of his own money on billboards and other advertising, supplemented by dozens of hours of door-to-door canvassing in the town’s neighborhoods, to win the mayor’s office after the former mayor, a friend of his, decided to retire in 2000.

With all due respect, he said, he knew he could do it better.

Now, between heading the Chamber of Commerce, operating a convenience store and keeping a restaurant going, he pursues his true passion: running this town of about 6,000 people.

“I spend way more time on the mayor’s job than the restaurant, convenience store and my wife put together,” Wiszowaty said.

Wiszowaty moved to South Carolina 20 years ago, after he and his wife decided to escape the harsh Chicago winters. They fell in love with Batesburg-Leesville, which they discovered while on a hunt for good barbecue, because of its racially diverse population, temperate weather and booming economy. Halfway between Columbia, S.C., and Augusta, Ga., it is home to three factories, including a Union Switch and Signal plant that makes many of the switches used in the New York City subway, and even hosts the annual South Carolina Poultry Festival.

During his two terms in office, the self-described “Yankee mayor in the South” has spent his time securing about $7 million worth of grants to fix sidewalks and streetlights, persuading Wal-Mart to build a brand-new store in town and “beating the doors down” when the state Legislature is in session.

Some of the city council members have proposed giving themselves a salary of about $24,000, but Wiszowaty rejected that idea.

“That $24,000 goes a long way,” Wiszowaty said. “I would never take any of the taxpayers’ money to do my job because I love it so much.”

E-mail: omp2111@columbia.edu