Volunteers with expertise carry out town business

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(Host) In every Vermont town, a handful of elected officials are in charge of getting the town’s business done. But, those officials couldn’t do their work without the help of a far larger number of volunteers: the people who serve on the town’s boards and commissions, and do the community’s odd jobs.

VPR’s Steve Delaney begins a series that looks at the tradition of public service in Vermont.

(Delaney) No Vermont town could afford to pay the people who do all the civic jobs that make a community run. Fortunately, they’ve never had to.

(Gregory Sanford) “I think Vermonters maintain interest in their communities.”

(Delaney) That’s Gregory Sanford, the state archivist. He’s been studying the way Vermonters volunteer in their towns.

(Sanford) “If you sit in a position such as development review board or select board, you’re going to hear a variety of opinions, even in the smallest of communities. And that’s the wonder of it because you have to sit and listen to strongly held views by your neighbors, and then you have to come up with some sort of resolution. What are you going to do? Unlike the coffee corner shop were you can have a vigorous argument and then go about your day, at some point as an elected official, you’re going to have to say ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ and put that into action.”

(Delaney) The select board is the key local office. Its members are elected, and are usually paid, a little, for their time at meetings. And they appoint unpaid volunteers to serve on boards and committees. They look for people who are, in the old-fashioned sense, civic-minded.

(Ghilles Rainville) “I’ve been on public service, some kind of town service, 20 plus years.”

(Delaney) Ghilles Rainville is on the select board in the Franklin County town of Georgia. He says community service is its own reward.

(Rainville) “I enjoyed every bit of it, and if I started over I’d do the same, and I encourage my family to devote time to the community. It’s not always about money. A person wants to do something, he’s gotta get paid, there’s no value to that person.”

(Delaney) Laurant Bellevance is the inspector of wood, bark and lumber in Hardwick, and has held that office for a dozen years.

(Bellevance) “It’s fun, you meet people and you hear some complaints, try to straighten them out.”
(Delaney) “And the satisfaction comes from being able to do something about those complaints?”
(Bellevance) “Oh yeah. Yeah, that’s the only satisfaction I get, because the money is not there.”

(Delaney) Traditionally, the satisfaction of doing a necessary job well has been enough to draw volunteers into public service positions in Vermont. But Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz says that’s not enough any more as the public tasks become more complex.

(Markowitz) “The kind of volunteering that a vital local government requires is down for positions that require a dedication and commitment week after week and month after month. And, as our local governments and the laws that apply to them become more complex, they’re often tasks that are seen as too complicated, unpleasant, in the middle of too many controversies, and people are declining to serve.”

(John Cushing) “We have made this so complicated that the lay person today says, wait a minute, why would I want to bother with it?”

(Delaney) John Cushing is the town clerk in Milton.

(Cushing) “The reality of it is, is that if we all decide to do that, the system will fall. I’m very concerned about it, I don’t know what to do about it at this point. But I think it’s, I think people are tired.”

(Delaney) Cushing himself is not tired. He’s been on the job for 34 years, and frequently testifies before the Legislature on local government issues. He thinks he has the best job in the world.

(Cushing) “I would not care about the state, I wouldn’t care about another form of government. I really do like being, you know, a local official. We have an opportunity here in the office to, to have a little more heart, to have a little more understanding of the problems that some folks face. Yeah, I wouldn’t swap it for anything.”

(Delaney) Some experts on local government in Vermont believe that one way to offset the shortage of civic volunteers is to reduce the number of jobs they hold. What positions were once useful, even important, but are now remnants of another age. Quintessential Vermont, but not they’re not essential jobs. A look at those in our next report.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Delaney.

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