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Is Big Government Entrenched? Try As They May, Media Unearth No Election-Year Scandals In Fairfield

Thu., Oct. 26, 1995

It’s election season and this little wheat town needs a new backhoe.

So the town’s leaders put a $30,000 levy on the Nov. 7 ballot and hope for approval from half of the voters. (There are 336 registered.)

Without nasty presidential and congressional races to cover, the bored media are forced to rush down state Highway 27 with all of the usual, jaded election questions:

Will anti-backhoe forces go negative? Will they dig up some dirt? Is this another example of government-run-amok? Would a bulldozer fit more with the mood of voters? Can pro-backhoe forces effectively communicate what the old backhoe has accomplished?

Perhaps looking for political cover, the mayor of Fairfield insists there’s no such nasty business in this campaign.

The city has three pieces of big equipment for roadwork and general maintenance: a backhoe, a road grader and a dump truck.

“It’s just getting hard to find parts for the old backhoe,” says Harry Gibbons, the mayor and dentist in Fairfield. “We’re going to get a used one, not a new one.”

Sure. But what about the bullet polling? Study groups and special interest money? Is this whole backhoe business part of some Republican Contract with Fairfield?

“I don’t think most people know about the backhoe,” says Gibbons. “But if they did, I think they’d be for it.”

Perhaps. Alongside pages of confusing charters and initiatives, referendums and resolutions, the Fairfield proposal is the easiest read on the ballot: $30,000 dollars “for replacement of the Town’s backhoe.”

City officials need one vote more than 50 percent to approve the levy. If it passes, property taxes will increase 95 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, less than $50 a year on a $50,000 house for two years.

The last time Fairfield voted on a levy was 1977. That one - to fix an outdated water system - passed 84-52.

Perhaps still reeling from that vote, anti-backhoe forces are keeping a low profile.

“I don’t know of anyone against it,” Gibbons says.

Interviews on the street paint a very different picture.

“What?” asks Denise Thies as she loads groceries in the trunk of a white Caprice Classic outside Kelly’s Thrift store. “I didn’t know they needed one. Well, if they really need a backhoe, I guess I’d vote yes.”

Smelling public boondoggle, the media scurry down a dirt ribbon a few blocks from Main Street, where the old backhoe is digging ditches for spring runoff.

Fairfield maintenance guy Carl Toetly doesn’t deny that the old backhoe, a 1964 Case, still runs. (It would be hard to deny while he’s running it.)

“But any time something goes wrong, you can’t get parts,” says Toetly. “It’s getting more and more expensive to fix.”

Toetly says a newer model, say a 1990, would be more efficient, easier to fix, more dependable. Then, they could sell the old backhoe and the 1962 road grader and also buy a newer, used grader.

Both Toetly and Mayor Gibbons say the old backhoe will break down for good if they don’t buy a new one soon.

“We’re certainly not getting one just because that backhoe is old,” says Gibbons.

But surely the sophisticated pro-backhoe campaign (a mention in the Tekoa newspaper, notices in water bills) was designed by outside consultants, perhaps Bill Clinton strategist James Carville? Or Ross Perot guru Ed Rollins?

No, Gibbons says. They did it themselves. Everyone in Fairfield knows everyone else and Gibbons says they trust the city leaders to do what’s right.

“Politics is still pretty laid back down here,” he says, sending the dejected media back to their car. “We don’t get too wound up.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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