Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Volunteers Still Making Local Government Work

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 25, 2013

By Bill Gouveia

            Someone I know and respect recently made a really good suggestion.  They said I might want to consider penning (or keyboarding in this case) a column focusing on the positive subject of volunteerism in local government.  And I realized it was a great idea.

            Now at first blush, you might think volunteer service in local government is down.  After all, you see notices looking for candidates to fill vacant positions on local committees all the time.  As a Town Moderator responsible for appointing a local finance committee, I can tell you potential members are not submitting their names in record numbers.  But that is only part of the story.

            It takes a lot more to run a small town today than it did in the 1970’s.   We have more committees than just three or four decades ago. There are many more laws, the regulations are tremendously more complex and plentiful, and with the media today even the most obscure committees often have their meetings broadcast or recorded.  With an ordinary vote on a suddenly controversial issue, you can wind up on local cable or the front page of your local newspaper.

            Back then, most board of selectmen consisted of three members.  Today, they have five.  We still have finance committees, conservation committees, planning boards, zoning boards, school committees and councils on aging.  They are made up of anywhere from three to 15 members each.

            In addition there are assessors, water and sewer commissioners, boards of health, cable committees, cemetery commissions, capital improvement committees, commissions on disabilities, cultural councils, industrial development commissions, open space committees, recreation committees, local housing partnerships, historical commissions, search committees, and a slew of others designed to serve our communities.

            It all adds up to literally hundreds of slots that must be filled by (mostly) unpaid volunteers who donate varying amounts of their valuable time in the name of public service.  While some are highly visible and provide the possibility of gaining personal political advantage, most are just a lot of work for which folks receive little credit or recognition other than knowing they have done something good for the town they call home.

            And yet, the committees are for the most part full.  They do their jobs, and if they do them well they are often hardly noticed.  Make a mistake, forget to post a meeting, fill out a form incorrectly – then you wind up the topic of some know-it-all column from your local political columnist.  Most of these are far from glamorous positions.

            Yet year after year, people step up and fill them.  Some do it for the long term, others when they can find the time.  Some serve on multiple boards, some change positions every now and then, and others have held the same posts for several decades. 

            You probably don’t know some of the people who serve on important committees in your town, especially if they have done their jobs well.  But you have no doubt benefited from their hard work and sacrifice. 

            If your budget has been reviewed by your finance committee and perhaps a few of your tax dollars saved, you have benefited.  If you have a child in school, you can thank your school committee members.  If you have enjoyed the beauty of local ponds, you should express appreciation to your conservation commission members. 

            Not everything that goes on in small town government is political in nature.  While the more mundane and yet important things are indeed reported by local media, they are overshadowed by the more controversial topics.  And honestly, the people who make these things happen usually prefer it that way.

            While most local towns have problems attracting citizens to participate at Town Meeting, they are much more successful in obtaining volunteers to serve on boards and committees and make life in their communities better for everyone.  Perhaps that is because the focus of service is much narrower, and citizens feel they actually make a difference.

            Whatever the reason, we should all be thankful for the many volunteer public officials and committee members serving our area.  No matter what form of government we have, without good people volunteering to serve it – it cannot succeed.  Our governments are only as good as our people.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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