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For Pete Cowles, enforcing the law as an Idaho State Police trooper is easy. Being mayor of Caldwell was hard.

Cowles became one of the nation's youngest city officials in 1985 when he was elected mayor of the southwestern Idaho city at the age of 25. He keeps a photo of how he looked four years later.It shows a man with dark circles under his eyes, flecks of gray in his hair and a hangdog look that make him seem a tired 20 years older.

"I look at that picture to remind me that I can never put my family through that again," Cowles said as he jumped into his cruiser to head down I-84. "It's a wonderful feeling to be able to enjoy what you're doing, and to smile about it."

Officials in many Idaho cities - and especially small towns - have little to smile about these days. Experts say people in their 20s, 30s and 40s too often choose to sit on the political sidelines rather than run for the city council or school board as their parents did.

Census figures for 1990 show that of the 44,000 people who left Idaho in the 1980s, 96 percent were from small towns and rural areas. That is creating a vacuum of new leadership talent where it is needed most.

"The young people are not staying around to serve," said Bill Jarocki, executive director of the Association of Idaho Cities. "I don't know where the next generation of leaders is going to come from."

Wayne Forrey of Boise is a consultant on government regulations to more than 300 Western cities. He sees trouble on Main Street - the graying of local leadership.

"In the older generation, I think serving on the city council was a very honorable calling in life," Forrey said. But today, "I don't hear people say, `I want to give something back to the community.' Now, it's `give me, give me, give me.' "

As the young leave, those who stay sometimes give up on public service.

No one ran for three Winchester City Council positions in 1989. And last month, citing lack of support, Elsie Coombes quit as mayor of the tiny Lewis County town after only 16 months in office.

"I feel like a person that's living again and not a zombie," Coombes said. "You can't please everybody."

In Inkom, City Clerk-Treasurer Sherry Helmandollar said, "If we have somebody run two terms, that's about it."

Local elected officials are bailing out of office, largely because the jobs require more of everything - more knowledge, more time and more thick skin to handle the inevitable carping.

Alan Smith, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said the average length of service for local school trustees has dropped to about four years, half what it was 15 years ago.

"It's just a continuous hassle on a school board and I think people grow tired of it," said Smith, a former board member in Bancroft. "I don't think I'd run for the school board now."

For town councilmen and mayors, pay can be a sore point. Cowles said he "nearly went broke" on the $16,500 salary as Caldwell's mayor. It since has been raised to $27,000.

Yet most Idaho towns pay elected city officials only a small stipend or nothing at all. School board members always have worked for free.

Jim Parker said he "has not received one nickel" in eight years as mayor of Rathdrum. And since Lyle "Stub" Myers died last month after 31 years as a city councilman, Parker has been turned down by the half-dozen people he's asked to fill the non-paying position.

"It's tough to ask people to take time off from their jobs and families for workshops, or attend two meetings a month lasting three to four hours," he said.

Forrey said he has talked with many who are leery of the new legal entanglements facing elected local officials.

"They don't want to have to deal with burgeoning federal regulations and get caught up with having to be personally liable for violating a waste permit in a local pond or river or get sued for a pothole," he said.

Getting things done in local government also can be a long, uphill struggle. Meeting the financial requirements and state and federal mandates involved in such projects as a new sewer system or school curriculum can sap the hardiest councilman or trustee.

And on the backroads of Owhyee, Elmore and Ada counties, Cowles is happy. Politics seem far away, and with distance comes perspective.

"I would never discourage anybody from getting involved" in government, he said. "I would say hold on, because it's going to be one heck of a ride."