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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

“Volunteers good, professionals bad!”

Or, You get what you pay for

Town Council Boss Tom Gentz (CCA) volunteered to
chauffeur the Easter Bunny to this year's Easter Egg Hunt.

By Linda Felaco

Unless you’ve been in a sensory-deprivation tank, you’ve probably caught wind of the fact that this is an election year. The campaign bios of the candidates for town offices are chock-full of lists of all the volunteer work they perform. Which is a wonderful thing, and a valuable service, one that helps keep our tax rate low. Heck, I’m a volunteer myself, here on the blog, though some might value that service less than others. I also tried to volunteer on the Affordable Housing Commission but was passed over for candidates who were more to the liking of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance.

While it’s nice to see people get involved, I do wonder sometimes if Charlestown hasn’t made something of a fetish of volunteerism.

Volunteers are good, don’t get me wrong. But there also seems to be a countervailing attitude that professionals are somehow bad—Exhibit A: The “Kill Bill” campaign—when of course the reality is a lot more complex.

Former town administrator Bill
DiLibero at the annual volunteer
picnic. Some felt he was overpaid.
I think he wasn't paid nearly enough
to have to put up with CCA
And how do we decide what is volunteer-run and what gets done by professionals? Why, for example, do we have volunteer firefighters and not, say, volunteer public works staff? Charlestown is of course far from the only town to have volunteer firefighters. The opportunity to save lives I imagine makes firefighting a more rewarding volunteer activity than, say, cleaning out storm drains. But then why do we have a volunteer Mosquito Abatement Commission, with no actual volunteers? Why not just have DPW do it? Ditto for the perennially unfilled position of Tree Warden and the empty spots on the Tree Commission.

And it does seem as though the same people who volunteer make the rounds of the various commissions. I couldn’t even list all of fellow PC-er and Town Council candidate Tom Ferrio’s volunteer activities without referring to his campaign bio. Gregg Avedisian has six council liaison gigs, the most of any of our current town councilors. Lisa DiBello, on the other hand, despite her reputation for being a tireless worker, is a consistent no-show for her one, count it, one council liaison spot, on the library board.

Sometimes I wish Charlestown really was George Tremblay’s nightmare of an “ever-expanding government.” I think professional staff would probably do a lot less damage than the volunteers on, for example, Planning or the CRAC. Or the CCA choices to pack Affordable Housing. And I can’t help but notice that the members of the Budget Commission, Zoning Board of Review, and now the Town Administrator search committee are, to borrow a phrase from former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, “pale, male, and stale.”

Then there’s the relationship of town commissions to town government. As it is, our commissions mainly advise the Town Council, and some but not all have staff people advising them. Why not have these commissions be the advisers to the town departments? For example, instead of Matt Dowling advising the Wastewater Commission, why not have the Wastewater Commission advising him? Or Parks and Rec advising Jay Primiano? Or Planning advising Ashley Hahn-Morris? (I can’t tell you how many meetings I attended before I finally figured out that Ashley was town planner and not Ruth Platner’s personal secretary.) Yes, yes, I know, we want community control, blah, blah. But it really means we don’t trust the people we hire.

In fact, I could be going out on a limb here, but I have to wonder if part of the reason why the council is letting the Town Administrator search drag on so long is because they figure as long as Pat Anderson is having to serve as both treasurer and TA, she won’t have the time to get into any Bill DiLibero-style mischief like municipal wind turbines or biofuels.

In the end, there is nothing special or holy about being a volunteer. It often means you are dealing with subjects you know less about than the staff, if only for the simple reason that you don’t spend 40 hours a week at it. It sometimes means you bring an agenda, hidden or open, that staff people usually don’t have. And it also means you’re less accountable than paid staff because, hey, you’re an unpaid volunteer, so whaddya expect? No one docks your “pay” when you don’t show up for “work” as a volunteer.

Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Indeed, a similar case could be made that by paying town councilors a stipend rather than wages for hours worked, we get only as much work out of them as we pay for. Maybe like at Walmart, the cost of low prices is too high.