Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Village Board Service: A Tradition in Peril

Al in Owen Brown posted a representative description of what I hear from dozens of erstwhile Columbia leaders that have decided to dedicate their efforts to activities other than Village Board service.  Although it was in the comments, I wanted to share Al's comment here for additional discussion:

I would like to comment on this idea of serving on Village boards. I apologize in advance if it is a rambling, hopefully not too negative post. I am 40 years old, I have two children aged 5 and 8. I have served on the OBCA Board in the past, getting as high as Vice Chairman. I have also served on various committees, like Lake Elkhorn Cleanup, Election committee, and CA's Financial advisory Committee. All in the past. When I think about what I am doing now (TSES PTA) it is easy to say that is all for my kids. While I will admit that is a big driver, it is not the whole story. When I first started on the OBCA board, I was overwhelmed with the amount of material needed to participate / even converse in the job. Board procedures, by-laws, CA procedures, CA by-laws were all dry reads, but do-able (trying to remember the difference between Owen Brown and the others was usually futile for me). I was very fortunate to serve with folks like Andy Stack and Neil Dorsey who are veritable encyclopedias of Columbia anything. To this day I am still in awe of Andy's ability to pull the correct document out of his magic briefcase. After a year or so I felt I was able to contribute. After two more years I quit, defeated and looking for a new place to serve. How did I get to this point?

Ahh now here is the rub. I was ready to contribute, I felt I had good ideas to contribute, and was willing to do the work necessary to move those ideas into practice. Not just have the ideas, but actually to generate content, go to the store and buy supplies, hang out at location X and talk to the people, organize the reports. Now I will be honest here, these ideas Changed the way we did business. Changed the mediums in which we communicated. Changed the folks we may have been talking to. I felt there was a whole portion of the Columbia population that did not “get” the newsletter and could be engaged in a new way. I also felt that just because it was done that way for the last 25 years, didn’t mean that it was the best way for today. I am trained as an engineer, and we try to solve problems, make things more efficient.

Unfortunately, I met with a fair bit of resistance from certain elements on the OBCA board and in the community. “Change” is not a concept that goes over easily in Columbia. Andy, Neil and others were very supportive of trying new things. Others were not. And when I say not supportive, I really mean aggressively negative. I would come home from meeting so mad that I thought I would quit the very next day. Each of these times, my wife (who for the record has also served on the board, and participated in various committees and had even been brave enough to try Chairmanship at one point) would talk me out of it and encourage finding another way to find buy-in. We are not talking radical stuff here: Comment cards in the lobby to get feedback on how we were doing, polling/surveying our residents to find out how they actually felt about issues, improving our communications with electronic newsletters, facebook etc. What I came to understand about working on the board was that there was not a desire to have buy-in, there was a requirement to agree with the “most aggressive” board member on their opinion or be faced with impossibly long, circular arguments and name calling until you were worn down to the point of agreeing just to go home. Forget getting any other business done until you had capitulated. Wow, in reading this back I see that the wounds have not healed and I am not ready to return to the board.

I would say that I am greedy. For every X units of effort I put into a service project, I expect to see at least X units of positive return. During my time on the board I felt I was lucky to get X/5 units of positive return. Why waste my time? It is precious. I have to explain to my kids why I have to go to another meeting. Why I wasn’t home to play a game? How I was really working to make their lives/neighborhood/environment better? When this got impossible to do, it was time for me to leave.

The Village boards and CA need to find a way to make X units of effort equal X units of positive return, or folks like myself, and not to speak for my wife but maybe a little, will find other places to perform our service to the community. One of the most important reasons why this blog is my first stop is that Tom still finds it possible, and lets us all know about it. Thank you for your service!

The aggressive rejection of Change is present in both stated and unstated forms, often boxing out the younger generation or those that are otherwise new to Columbia.  The answer would seem to be persistence.