All elected officials would like to make the claim, but only those who serve at the local level really merit the description of "public servants."
Small-city council members often put in 20 or more hours a week -- apart from their full-time jobs -- for a stipend that barely provides gas money to meetings. They work weekends and nights, serve on committees, officiate community functions and interact with regional authorities when they're not reading staff reports, listening to constituents or deciding policy.
It's a job that nobody truly grasps until the responsibilities land on their shoulders. That's why San Ramon offers a candidate orientation workshop for anyone planning to run.
"Some people think council members just show up for meetings and vote," Deputy City Clerk Renee Beck said. "There's a lot more than that involved. We don't want people to get into something they'll regret."
The most recent workshops -- last Thursday and Saturday -- were timed to coincide with the filing period (now through Aug. 9) for a November election in which two council seats and the mayoral post will be on the ballot. (San Ramon, unlike most East Bay cities, holds elections in odd-numbered years.)
Candidates, who must be registered voters and San Ramon residents, learned that merely running for office poses a dizzying array of hurdles. They must gather nominating signatures from 20 registered San Ramon voters just to qualify for the ballot. If they want their candidate statement on a sample ballot, it costs $790, and it must be limited to 300 words. They must file four different campaign disclosure forms with the Fair Political Practices Committee.
There's more. Candidates need to be familiar with the code of fair campaign practices and accept responsibility for campaign signs, which cannot be located on medians, sidewalks, stoplights or power poles, or on school, park or other public property, and must be removed within 10 days of the election. Then there's the matter of a campaign strategy.
It's a lot to digest. What surprises people most?
"Just the amount of detail," City Clerk Pat Edwards said. "As I tell people, it's not difficult, it's just complicated."
New candidates invariably make mistakes, she said. A petition signature turns out to be invalid, or a signer fails to also print his name. Candidates forget to bring payment for their campaign statement fee, or they file an unacceptable campaign designation (job description).
"You can't describe yourself as a retired military officer if you're still working," Edwards said. "That's not a valid occupation."
One of her nuggets of advice -- understand the council's duties before you run -- might seem obvious, but she's learned otherwise.
"One year we had candidates who had never been on a committee or a commission and just out of the blue decided to run," she said. "We don't want to discourage anybody, but you've got to understand planning and zoning. And if you don't understand how the municipal budget works, you have a huge learning curve."
San Ramon also offers an annual class, "Government 101," a primer for anyone who wants understand how local policy is made and enforced. It generally is well attended.
Only four candidates were at the orientation workshops, but that shouldn't be a surprise.
Not everyone is cut out to be a public servant.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.