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Local officials discuss government service
February 24, 2012 Jerry Purvis   

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Former Gering councilmen and mayors Bob Unzicker and Starr Lehl chat before the Gering Citizen’s Local Government Forum Thursday night. Several past and present government officials shared their wisdom with the audience, which included Troy Cowan and Ben Baccus, both of whom making a first-time run for a seat on the Gering city council.

Six present and former holders of public office were at a public meeting Thursday at the Gering Citizen offices to discuss what to expect from elective office.

Gering developer Bob Unzicker was first to speak. He spent 10 years on the school board before making a successful run for Gering mayor, where he spent two terms.

“I contribute much of my success to others on the various boards and commissions and the city council,” he said. “During my time as mayor, we built the Gering Civic Center and the Robidoux RV Park. Both of those venues contribute greatly to our ongoing tourism effort.”

He said he was fortunate to have a council who wanted to do what was best for the community, not for themselves individually.
“That’s one of the keys to newcomers who want to get involved in politics,” he told the group. “Put aside your personal feelings and work for the betterment of the community.”

Another former Gering council member and mayor, Starr Lehl, also spoke. She said she became interested in elective office from her work with the city as a member of the Gering Jaycees.

“Don’t run for council for the wrong reasons,” she warned the group. “It’s not the right reason if you’re running because you have an ax to grind or you’re upset with a city employee. Go into the job with a positive attitude of wanting to make the community better.”
She also praised former elected officials, such as Unzicker, who helped lay the groundwork for much of the success she experienced on the council.

“It’s important to listen to and respect everyone else’s point of view,” Lehl said. “We may agree to disagree, but we’re all there to make Gering better.”

Alan Doll, a current member of the Gering School Board and former city council member, said being involved on the school board was easy because his kids attend the Gering schools. “Back when I worked for the city, I found out we could disagree strongly with each other and still remain friends,” he said. “We all have our own visions of what the future should be like, but we need to remember we’re just one person on the board.”

He added everyone should get involved in the community to make it a better place. In a humorous observation, Doll said public officials need to avoid what he called “German-Russian Alzheimer’s,” common to the area’s ethnic heritage, where people forget everything but the grudges.

Scotts Bluff County Clerk and Election Commissioner Vera Dulaney explained the filing process to potential candidates, including deadlines, residency requirements and where filing fees are to be paid.

“If you feel intimidated about running for office, there are other areas where you can get involved,” Dulaney said. “You can attend a county party convention or serve on an election board. In every election season, I need about 150 volunteers to help.”

Current Gering City Council member Rebecca Shields also shared her experiences in city government. Although she was unsuccessful when she first applied to fill a vacant council seat, the then mayor, Starr Lehl, recommended she get involved on the Planning Commission. Two years later, Shields ran for city council and was elected. She is now in her second term.

“Council offers great opportunities to network with council members in other cities and discuss challenges that affect you both,” Shields said.

Gering School Board member Brian Copsey said having kids in school was also one of the reasons he decided to get involved.
“You don’t have to agree with everyone who serves on the board with you,” Copsey said. “But you can feel good in knowing they all want what’s best for the community. And when the board makes a decision, you have to get behind it.”

He added a good place for a candidate to start is in admitting they don’t have all the answers. During a question and answer session that followed, all the candidates agreed that newly elected officials should rely on their fellow board members for expertise, guidance and the “institutional memory” of how challenges were addressed in the past.

Citizen publisher Lisa Betz said the purpose of the meeting was give people interested in running for elected office the opportunity to learn more about government from those who have served and continue to serve.

So far, four newcomers have filed to run for Gering City Council in 2012. Ric Johns has filed in Ward I, Lance Cline in Ward II, Ben Backus in Ward III and Troy Cowan in Ward IV.
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