PAINTER: Who am I to trash a volunteer?

Jan 4, 2012


Johnson City, at the time, had a population of about 1,000. There were no tennis courts until the mayor and his group of volunteers took charge and built one.

The mayor was proud of the work his crew had done.

He then asked me what I thought of the new court. I made a comment that the playing surface “seemed rough.”

I could tell the mayor was hurt. He snapped back: “I didn’t see you out here helping.”

I was wishing I could crawl into a hole. The mayor had every right to be upset. My comment was out of line. He and the others worked in sweltering summer heat, pouring concrete and building a fence — all in their spare time.

That incident has a permanent spot in my memory. I made it a point to be more understanding of volunteers.

The mayor and his helpers deserved praise — not criticism from someone who had never been part of such a major undertaking.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t give enough credit to work done by volunteers.

Through the years, I’ve seen a number of volunteers receive unwarranted criticism. This has been especially true for volunteers who hold public offices. They give up their free time — time they could be spending with their families — to represent their fellow citizens. It can be a thankless job, but an important one.

Throughout my years at the Grand Haven Tribune, I’ve come across many men and women who have ably served their communities. True, sometimes their votes stir up controversy and anger, but they are making decisions that they believe will benefit their communities.

Our volunteer public officials are sometimes criticized for their actions. They are taken to task in letters to the editor, and even in editorials and columns in the Tribune.

Newspaper editors, like myself, feel they have an obligation to take public officials to task when we feel they made a bad decision. We quickly pounce on them.

But how many times have we written about the good things public officials have accomplished, and how hard they work? Not often enough.

I can remember being at odds with the Del Rio, Texas, mayor over the closing of a fire station. I, and others at the Del Rio News-Herald, thought the mayor was making a terrible mistake. He thought he was making the right decision.

We blasted the mayor in editorials. In hindsight, we should have spent more time talking to him about his reasoning.

There have been similar disagreements play out in the Grand Haven area. We’ve written editorials and columns criticizing public officials for their decisions; perhaps sometimes unfairly. We didn’t take the time to delve into the issues.

I know that it’s a difficult job to serve on government boards. Board members don’t get enough credit for the work that they do.

In recent years, I’ve noticed that fewer people are stepping up to run for office. I’m sure job and family responsibilities play a role in their reluctance to step up, but I also wonder if they fear being criticized unfairly.

I’m not calling for newspapers to lessen their roles as watchdogs in the community. Our readers expect us to keep them informed — and we should keep on doing that.

But we also have an obligation to be fair to our volunteer public officials. As the mayor of Johnson City told me: “I didn’t see you out there helping.”

I applaud and salute our public servants. Your accomplishments shouldn’t go unnoticed.


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