Published On: Fri, Jan 4th, 2013

CITIZEN'S Voice #30

By: Al Zucaro

Sitting here reading various reports on local and statewide ethics reform and also reviewing the recent media coverage of our city’s frustration over the vacancies on volunteer boards and committees, raises concern and curiosity as to reasons why.  The age old JFK adage of ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’ seems to be a lost sentiment in these days of political correctness, of continual oversight and of frustrating outcomes regardless of the individual participation.

To support this proposition, let me share a collage of reactions from citizens around Boca Raton on their voluntarily willingness to participate and contribute and their feelings of resentment, disrespect and frustration.   No direct quotes are presented as these individuals’, in a calmer moment might modulate their comments but….contained within their emotion is a lot of truth….

Last week WPTV reported that volunteers are ‘disappearing’ from various boards in the city of Boca Raton.

(see http:www.wptv.com/dpp/news/region s palm beach county/boca raton/boca-raton-city-counsil-frustrated-over-lack-of-interest-in-volunteer-board-positions)

WPTV reported that not one person stepped forward on November 13th to fill the 20 open positions on the various boards.  Mayor Whelchel was even heard to express the council’s collective frustration with this growing phenomenon.  Also reported was longtime resident Bob Hildreth’s concern that no matter what the reason, the residents need “to get involved.”  It is in that sentiment where one really cannot ignore but rather must explore what the reasons may be….

From many different voices and on many different levels, the prevailing sentiment is that after years of volunteering, committee members are being heard to express a telling story of their experiences and the consensus is that the story being told is not a pretty one.

Starting with the county’s recent movement to shed its ‘corruption’ label, multiple restrictions and demands have been put in place on volunteers both at the county and city levels.  And, if you are paying attention at all to the state, more restrictive regulations can be expected in this upcoming legislative session.  These regulations assume that there are no ethical people and treat the volunteer from a ‘guilty until proven innocence’ posture governing, with the power of law, what members can and cannot do.  If you don’t think this a deterrent and a turn off, think again.

Rules regarding attendance and rules on speaking outside of the official meeting to other committee volunteers often result in reprimands to the volunteer with disciplinary action copied to countless city officials on a public record resulting in what might be viewed as a Scarlett letter on the reputation of the volunteer.

Remember folks….these are volunteers….

Webster’s dictionary defines volunteer as a ‘person who undertakes some task or service of his own free will…to offer willingly.’  The operative sentiment is willingly, without pecuniary reward.  The reward is in the good feelings received from doing something positive, an act for the greater good.  Subjecting volunteers to criticism and embarrassment is a sure way to reduce participation.

Big brother is always present.  Meetings are all taped to preserve the evidence of a possible and perceived wrong doing; meetings are often arbitrarily relocated at the wish and whim of the administration; and Board bank accounts containing financial contributions both public and private are no longer permitted within the city’s recent guidelines.

New board members are often appointed simply on request of the applicant without any demonstration of their previous involvement with the particular committee they are being appointed too.  In some cases well developed concepts and program ideas are submitted to the city to languish unanswered for extended periods of time without guidance, comment or criticism.  Treatment like this naturally leads the volunteer to ask, ‘Why bother serving such an ungrateful master.’

So what’s up….or better yet, what’s down….

Perhaps the city’s frustration would be reduced if leadership would become more aware of people’s feelings and frustrations, a symptom of the council’s lack of having their ear to the ground, their lack of listening to the average citizen.  These elementary school restrictions designed to ‘CYA’ the leadership and administration by curtailing a board’s scope and power is very off putting, not just to new applicants but to existing volunteer members who have simply given up and walked away.  This reality is exampled in the WPTV piece reflecting that after not being able to attract new members on November 13th, five existing volunteers resigned the very next morning on November 14th.   Coincidence, I think not….

There is a substantial price to be paid for overwhelming restrictions; for this ‘no you can’t do that’ atmosphere.  Limitations that curtail volunteerism, no matter how well intended, are bad things.  A toll has clearly been taken over the past few years with the tip of the iceberg now being seen at so many different levels.  But perhaps, in a very Machiavellian way, this is exactly what is wanted.

Citizen involvement flies in the face of the trend in government these days.  These days, in this “nanny” society, one starts from the proposition that the government knows best, that the citizens should just follow quietly the leadership’s direction without question, without participation.  Citizen volunteers are the bottom line; to wit: the proverbial pain in the ass, the pebble in the shoe, a hindrance to unbridled power grabbing, simply a time consuming annoying mosquito on the furrowed brow of our dictatorial leadership, the all-knowing philosopher kings.

It almost seems that the elected officials, yes, I said elected officials, may have forgotten, or may just do not care that volunteers who serve are giving of their time, talent and energies to improve the quality of life for the Boca resident not for the convenience of the elected official.  These volunteers give freely, having nothing to gain except the satisfaction of a job well done, a job that should appreciated by elected official and the administration.

Fancy that!

One resident’s comment worthy of repeating reflects a consensus  feeling across the board with Boca residents city wide.

“I love this city.  My family has been part of it for decades now but more and more I’m disturbed by how we (volunteers) are treated as naughty children by city leadership.  These same people wonder why more people don’t vote in city elections?   Because we are aware, painfully aware, that no matter how we vote ultimately won’t matter, when those who truly run the city of Boca Raton are not the elected official.  They, (unelected officials) are running (volunteerism) alright-running it right into the ground.”

So back to the beginning, the question is not to ask what you can do for the city but rather to ask what the city officials can do for you….

How frustrating is it that.  Volunteers are acting by reacting, by withdrawing from participating and by their collective inaction .

Until there is an attitude change at the top, there will be less and less of us on the bottom.

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