Kerry Venier sits on a stone bench along Main Street in Silver Lake, a quiet town of about 800 people 50 miles west of the Twin Cities. It's almost noon and a nearby corner cafe is getting ready for the lunch rush. You can smell the french fries all the way across the street here in front of city hall.
Venier is Silver Lake's city clerk and treasurer and knows almost everyone in town. His hand automatically goes up into a wave at the passing of each car.
"We don't run into people keeping to themselves here. It really helps to add to the flavor of the small town," Venier says.
According to Venier, the people of Silver Lake cherish their town and do what they can to help it thrive. He says locals are involved in lots of organizations like the Lions Club, the Legion Club, and a community group that works to enhance the nearby lake the town is named for.
But the story was different when it came time for aspiring local politicians to step up for this fall's election. There are no names on the ballot for the race for mayor or city council. Just a blank line and a direction to voters to write in a candidate's name.
"It'll be an interesting election because we didn't have anyone come forward and file for office right away, so it's going to be all write-ins," Venier says.
The current mayor has decided to run a write-in re-election campaign for his seat. And it appears there may be a write-in candidate for one of the two open seats on the five-seat city council. But no one else in town has shown much interest.
Venier says the two current council members are stepping down because after several years of serving, they've had their fill.
It's kind of a thankless job. Everybody wants to tell our councilors what the problems are, but very few people will offer solutions. And so it gets frustrating.Kerry Venier
"It's kind of a thankless job," he says. "Everybody wants to tell our councilors what the problems are but very few people will offer solutions. And so it gets frustrating for council members."
Venier finds that makes it hard to get new candidates excited about running for city council. He also says the negative side of big political campaigns turns people away even from non-partisan local positions. So that leaves a few people who end up serving, and those are the people who already have a plenty to do.
"We have a core group of people that get involved in the community. You find that they're involved in the Lions Club, the Legion Club, the Lake Enhancement Association, and now they're running for office," Venier says. "And about two years later, you'll see that they're done with all of it, because everybody threw everything on their shoulders and said, 'Now you run with it for a while.'"
Ben Winchester, with the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota, Morris, says it's common for people in small towns to feel an obligation to take on leadership positions, only to be saddled with so many duties that many ultimately choose to drop everything. He calls it leadership burnout.
"The community leaders that are there to maintain our small towns and help improve it, just aren't available to us any more," Winchester says.
When established leaders burn out, it's hard to encourage a younger generation of leaders to step forward. Jim Krile, who heads up a program to train community leaders at the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation, says the role residents play in their communities has changed over the years.
"There was a great social expectation that people would contribute to the community in terms of their time and talent. It was seen as a great privilege to be an elected official," Krile says.
But now Krile says, we're becoming an increasingly individualistic society. People are busy taking care of their families and spend less time on their community as a whole. Many people treat small towns as bedroom communities, and when they come home after a day of work and commuting, they stay home.
Krile says inviting new people to serve in local government is also complicated by the fact that some people are ready to fight over almost every issue, even in small towns.
He says the challenges of serving in local government -- facing angry sneers in the coffee shop or harsh words at the local grocery store -- is on the minds of most people when someone asks, "Why don't you run?"
"If I have to choose between how I'm going to spend my volunteer time, people tend to look for things that they find rewarding and sustaining. For a lot of people, holding elective office doesn't fit that description for them," Krile says.
Krile wants a change in how towns treat elected officials. He suggests residents can support local politicians with a compliment when they deserve one. And he says towns need to stress the good that residents might accomplish by running for mayor, city council or the local school board.
Inviting more people to take part in local government has been a priority for Sara Triplett, the mayor of Redwood Falls. Triplett is stepping down this fall after 12 years as mayor and eight years on the city council.
As mayor, she appointed 60 community members to serve on 10 different city committees. For one thing, she says, that went a long way to lighten the burden on city leaders.
"It's certainly part of the philosophy of building a good team and involving the community. So when you come to an issue you have a group of people out there already well informed on it," Triplett says.
In Silver Lake, this fall's open ballot has city officials pondering what they can do to encourage more people to take part in city government. City Clerk and Treasurer Kerry Venier says he's doing his best to remind people that a seat on the city council will help them steer the direction of the city's future. But he's not too worried about empty chairs at the council table.
"People will step up because it is their city, and I'm confident that people are proud enough in this town that they'll take whatever actions that need to be taken," Venier says.
Venier says it's always possible for residents to offer themselves as write-in candiates at the last minute. If not, this isn't the first time they've had empty spots on the ballot.
Venier says if they have to, they'll fill the positions like they have in the past, by appointing people to serve after the election.