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Sunday, March 7, 2010

FROM WALLINGFORD - ‘It ain’t the money!’

This week’s edition of FROM WALLINGFORD was written by my counterpart Stephen Knight

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

This quote, attributed to President Harry S Truman, could also serve as good advice to those who serve on some of the boards, committees and commissions of local Wallingford government.

An interesting February 26th Record-Journal article on these local bodies begs for elaboration. The article focused on the few whose members receive some finan­cial compensation, and referred to mem­bership in others as patronage positions. I suppose that’s fine as far as it goes, but those are isolated aspects of a much larger subject. I want to expand on why these people serve and how they are chosen, and then include a discussion of other committees serving the town govern­ment.

1) Why do they serve? Well, it ain’t the money. If the people serving on these town boards were paid by the hour, the town would have to request exemption from state minimum wage laws. That in­cludes Town Councilors, who receive $6,000 in annual compensation. The Board of Education works gratis, a strange anachronism of state law, by the way. Of the twenty-five boards, committees and commissions, only eight have compensa­tion of any kind, and much of that is for reimbursement of expenses.

Patronage? Webster’s defines that as “the power to make appointments to gov­ernment jobs especially for political ad­vantage.” Consider the contentious mosque-on-Leigus-Road issue at Planning & Zoning, the potentially hundreds of tax appeals coming up in this revaluation year, or the recent fun of being a political football as a member of the Board of Ethics. I’m not sure what you would call it, but it isn’t political patronage. And even though the Town Council and Board of Education are elected positions that of­ficeholders actually ask the voters for, you have to say that the hours spent at the fun ­filled Wooding-Caplan Town Council meetings or the recent Board of Educa­tion elementary school reconfiguration deliberations are not exactly rewards for doing anyone’s political bidding.

2) How are these folks chosen to serve on all these boards? Obviously, the Town Council and Board of Ed members are elected. Of the other twenty-three, twelve are Mayoral appointments and eleven are Council appointments. And even within those, only a handful of people are actu­ally chosen with input from the political parties. Many are chosen because they have become well known as community volunteers; others because of their inter­est in the subject of concern to that board. Yes, you certainly have a leg up if you par­ticipate in local politics, but that is hardly the only avenue. But the old adage “If you want something done, ask a busy person” fits. Many get asked to serve for that rea­son alone.

3) Lastly, the discussion of those serv­ing on Town of Wallingford boards and committees would be incomplete without mention of the ad hoc committees, espe­cially building committees, formed to oversee a specific project or study a particular issue. Space does not allow for list­ing them all, but the three School Building Committees of the past fifteen years and the Library Expansion Building Commit­tee will serve as the best examples. In each case, a relative handful of individu­als provided the town with expertise which would have otherwise cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to procure, and spent thousands of man­ hours overseeing huge and complex con­struction projects to a resoundingly suc­cessful conclusion. And, at the same time, answering to public officials, some of whom had lost sight of the fact that they were dealing, not with contracted vendors, but unpaid volunteers — if you get my drift.

So of the 150 or so individuals serving on twenty five boards, committees and commissions, 39 are compensated. And that compensation has no relationship to the responsibilities borne, the hours spent, or the javelin catching, chainsaw juggling work that these public-spirited people are often called on to perform. Ku­dos to them all.

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