A Q&A with Kurt Kastein about the importance and function of city government.

Election day is coming.

A thousand apologies if that unearthed some deep trauma you buried from last November. But I’m not talking about a national election. I’m talking about the Fort Collins municipal election on Monday, April 4.

It’s true. This year, Fort Collins voters will be electing a new mayor, and voters in Districts 1, 3 and 5 will be voting for their respective representatives. A handful of city-initiated amendments are also on the ballot.

At a time when the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. continues to pit everyone against everyone, a local city election might be the antidote to calm our civic nerves and reorient our political priorities. Because right now, our national political mood is one of fear. Fear breeds distrust, and when we distrust those living nearest us, the fabric of our community starts to unravel. This is no small thing. Caring deeply about the people and policies that impact us at a neighborhood level is the essential theme of the popular sitcom Parks and Recreation. While often off-the-wall and hyperbolic, the show demonstrates the value of seeking the good of the people where we live, simply because they’re our neighbors and because this is where we live. The only thing Leslie Knope loves more than waffles is her city and her fellow citizens.

Which is really saying something, because we’re sinners who have crazy ideas about things and bad attitudes and usually misplace the mail-in ballot. People willingly choose to run for local office knowing full well that they have to lead and serve us.

And if our only awareness of local elections comes from a sitcom, we probably don’t fully grasp the importance of elected city leaders or fully understand what they do. To help us gain more appreciation of our local government and why local politics should matter to Christians, I talked to Kurt Kastein—a member at Summitview and a member of the Fort Collins city council from 1999 to 2007. Our conversation has been edited for readability.

Trevor: Voter turnout in local elections is abysmally low. Why do you think this is? How involved are the citizens of Fort Collins in our local politics?

Kurt: Voter turnout for more publicized national elections is low, so it’s no surprise that turnout for local elections is even lower. In general, people don’t see the value of local elections because they don’t understand how local politics matter. There is a small but very consistent group of citizens who stay involved in Fort Collins politics. That group has a disproportionately large impact on local politics. Sometimes the people involved are labeled and even chastised for being activists. Whatever the label, people who get connected do have influence.

Trevor: Is there a lack of understanding about local political systems and how they function? For example, what do city council members actually do? Are mayors like the queen of England—all title but very little authority?

Kurt: Six council members and one mayor make up a seven-person council, each with an equal vote. The city council determines how the city’s yearly tax and fee revenues are spent. That $619 million dollar annual budget goes a long way. The impacts of city spending are seen in fire and police protection, city street construction and maintenance, and provision of water and electricity. Council members are the lawmakers for local City ordinances. Ordinances create restrictions over and above federal and state laws. Codes dictate big picture visions for zoning of residential and commercial building districts and also regulate smaller-scope rules on the number of unrelated adults that can live in a single structure and how parties must be kept under control. The influence of the city council is far-reaching and obvious.

Trevor: As someone who used to serve on the city council, what do you wish the average Fort Collins citizen knew about what the council does and how it operates?

Kurt: It’s good for citizens to understand that the $619 million annual City budget is proposed and approved by the Fort Collins city council. Council members serve on a largely volunteer basis, receiving about $6,000 per year for their service. Council members are typically accessible to the citizens they serve. So, citizens can have an impact on how local tax revenues are spent by understanding how the budget works and helping to inform their local city council members on the appropriate uses for that income. You can learn more about the city budget here.

Trevor: Why do local elections matter just as much (if not more) than national or state elections?

Kurt: Local government decisions directly impact life in the city of Fort Collins. The impacts are felt here, where we live. Since council members are so accessible and decisions are made locally, citizens can have a fairly direct impact on the outcome.

Trevor: Why should followers of Jesus care about local politics and local elections? How would you encourage Christians to be better stewards of our local political responsibilities?

Kurt: Just like Jesus brought good to the world around him, followers of Christ should be motivated to do the same. Being involved in local politics is an excellent way for Christians to participate in bringing good. And since such large resources are applied, the impacts can be far-reaching. A city under a Christian influence should stand out as one whose laws are consistent with biblical standards of justice. Laws and city resources should be applied in a way that respects the proper roles of government, church and family.

Trevor: Why is it important to love where you live? How would love for place change the way we participate in our local political scene?

Kurt: We should love the people around us in the place we live. The people are what matter most. So, be involved in local politics in order to love the people around you and make the place we live something really good for us all.

Trevor: Party affiliation aside, how should voters assess local candidates? Are there unique factors in play that we don’t typically see in state or national elections?

Kurt: It’s fairly easy to understand and even connect with local candidates. Council members are elected in each of the six city districts and the mayor represents the city at large. Read through the website of the candidate in your district and understand his or her views from what you find there. But go deeper by emailing or calling them with a specific question about an issue you’re interested in.

Trevor: Can local politics provide an antidote to the polarization and partisanship that typifies our engagement with national politics and Facebook screeds?

Kurt: Good point. It’s easy to feel disconnected from the goings-on at the national scene. Your impact at the local level can be significant and it’s not difficult to engage.

Trevor: Lastly, and very importantly, who is your Parks and Recreation spirit animal?

Kurt: Since the baby snow owl is taken, I’d have to say the golden (not bald) eagle is mine.