Volunteer advisors make key contributions to Harford's governments

One of the things I think many of us in the media, if not the community, overlook about our local governments is the importance of the large number of volunteers who serve on a myriad of advisory boards and commissions.

We know who all the elected officials are and, on occasion, somebody will get up to speak at a meeting on behalf of this board or that commission, be it at the Harford County Council or one of the city council meetings in Aberdeen or Havre de Grace or the Bel Air town meetings. But by and large, most of these so-called citizen advisors provide their assistance in relative anonymity.

Our county charter provided for a number of advisory boards and commissions, and dozens more have been created in the 40 years since the charter was adopted. Some of these panels seemingly have more power and cachet than others, but regardless, they have one thing in common: Nobody gets paid to serve.

Service on the Harford County Board of Education is also voluntarily, another point we tend to overlook, if for no other reason than this board in particular has the weight of state law behind it and a lot of visibility, not to mention a tremendous amount of responsibility for the well-being of 38,000-plus kids and their families and another 5,300 employees and their families. And, service on the school board has become even more visible now that most members have to run for election and will be doing so in a few short months.

But, getting back to my original thought: Nobody is forced to serve on any of these boards and nobody gets paid to participate. While most people I'm sure consider it an honor to be involved in their government, you really have to want to do it and to be willing to devote the time to it.

When the county executive and county council form of government began in 1972, I, in my youthful skepticism, tended to view getting appointed to something like the planning advisory board, public works advisory board or parks and recreation advisory board as mainly a patronage tool to reward people who had supported the county executive or council members in the most recent election.

Then, however, I started to cover some of the meetings of these early boards and met people like Melvin Lang, John Wilson, Eleanor Kunkel and Jay Freeman Wright and many others like them, and I realized how wrong I was in my assumptions.

There was no question these people and many of the hundreds who have served since had good political connections, but they also possessed something else far more important: Knowledge. They understood the county, the politics of certain aspects of, say, where you should put a ball field or where a new sewer line should go, and they understood the intricacies of the subject at hand as well as any paid expert, if not better.

The impetus for this column came from reading the obituary for Mr. Wright, a lifelong Aberdeen resident, who died earlier this month at age 85. Mr. Wright's service to the county went back into the county commissioner days, before home rule, and it continued well into the first years of the new government.

In addition, as his obituary notes and to which I can personally attest, Mr. Wright was indeed a regular at county council meetings for many, many years. He often sat behind me, and occasionally provided me with insight on the goings-on that proved to be invaluable. "So, Mr. Wright (I always called him Mister, never Jay or Freeman), what do you make of that?" I would ask. Quietly and with a smile, he would provide his analysis succinctly and forthrightly. "Just don't quote me," he would end with a smile.

Mr. Wright was quite a knowledgeable person and understandably so given his background. He was an early advocate for manufactured housing and developed Wright's Mobile Home Village across Route 7 from his family's Cranberry Hall Farm in Aberdeen. He liked to hunt and shoot and, according to his obituary, was known for his skill with "Long Tom," his shotgun that helped him win many a turkey shoot. He also like to carve waterfowl decoys and was an early supporter of the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum.

You can't just go out and buy expertise and experience that folks like Mr. Wright and others like him brought and continue to bring to our local governments. Without their unselfish contributions, I think all of us would probably be a lot worse off when it comes to the quality of the government we get.

We probably don't shine as much of a media spotlight on these individuals and the boards and commissions on which they serve as we once did, but that in no way should diminish their contributions. If nothing else, they often serve as a moderating influence, providing voices of wisdom and sounding boards straight from the citizens.

If those in positions of authority fail to listen and heed, as they unfortunately sometimes do, it reinforces the notion of why we have citizen advisors in the first place: To save us all from the arrogance that attends far too many of our bureaucrats and elected officeholders.

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