Academy, Look Park, Lilly Library
Time to Introduce Democracy
In the Selection of Trustees
Who Govern Some City Institutions
By Edward Shanahan
Clearly what is behind the meltdown of a long list of community organizations and institutions is a fundamental lack of accountability.
Who should have known what and when and why did they not respond?
The depressing stories of the recent closing of the Academy of Music, on the heels of the public humiliation of the United Way of Hampshire County and following the long drawn-out death of the very important Hampshire Community Action Commission could not be more instructive.
But are we learning anything as a consequence of this accumulating wreckage and have we seen its end? I think not.
Listen to these incisive observations expressed by a former United Way employee who wrote to downstreet.net in the wake of articles we published.
The articles, he said “… clearly articulated the most important issue surrounding what happened at United Way of Hampshire County and continues to plague so many non-profit organizations: the rigorousness with which board members carry out the fiscal responsibilities of their professional lives -- and even their personal finances -- seems … missing when overseeing organizations with noble purposes.
“It seems that board members assume that demanding accountability would be an affront to those who are working hard to do good. That is, in fact, their purpose in providing managerial and operational oversight. I would imagine most of the people working in non-profits would welcome being treated more as serious professionals than as well-meaning dolts or -- even worse -- people whose work is not worthy of board members' best efforts and skills.”
Accountability works in several ways: the dedicated and engaged board of directors or trustees monitor carefully the activities of the organization they are charged with running, making sure the administration and employees are acting responsibly and in accordance with the stated mission of the organization.
Additionally, the directors or trustees owe an iron-clad commitment to members of the community (the public) who contribute money or receive services from the agency or organization to make sure everything is on the up and up.
To accomplish that, board members need to pay attention and work at the task of protecting the broad community interest. It’s called public service.
One way our democratic society seeks to carry out this work is to require that people stand for election if they want to serve the public. This is especially critical when taxpayer funds or publicly-owned property or facilities are involved, as is the evident case of the Academy of Music, Look Park, and the Lilly Library in Florence, which now operate outside public review.
Neither the Academy board, nor Look Park board, nor the Lilly Library board, each of which are city facilities in one significant way or another, contains any trustee, except for the mayor as a non-voting ex-officio member, who is elected by the public to sit specifically on these boards.
In the case of the Academy and Look Park boards their meetings are not open to the public, times and dates of meetings are not posted, minutes are not distributed and annual financial reports are not voluntarily made public.
Forbes Library, on the other hand, is governed by five trustees who are chosen by the voters in municipal elections, as is the SmithVocational High School board members, and even the Electors of Smith Charities, under the Oliver Smith will, which are selected by municipal elections.
There are so many instances in this community and others where the public business is in fact not conducted by elected representatives but by appointees, more often coming from the inside, rather than outside the organization.
This kind of governance has been with us and accepted for a long, long time, because it was felt that volunteer board members, being upstanding citizens, can do no harm, and insulated from removal even if they perform badly. It has been essentially the privatization of public service.
And maybe it works more often than it fails, and maybe we don’t care when Tapestry, formerly Western Massachusetts Family Planning Council, allowed hundreds of thousands of dollars to be squandered, or that HCAC went out of business, resulting in loss of public money, termination of services for many and the end of employment for others.
And maybe we don’t care what is going on in the proliferating number of Charter Schools with no elected school committee representatives to guide, monitor and scrutinize them even though they are publicly funded.
The appointed Northampton Housing Authority board, described as a quasi-public agency, lacks accountability to the public, as we can witness by its routinely inept handling of publicly-funded housing projects throughout the city.
We can’t elect each member to every board of every agency performing good works, but we can rethink the governance and accountability issues when it comes to a priceless city-owned downtown theater, a sprawling park on city-owned land, and even the library in Florence, which gets much of its operating funds from taxpayers.
Maybe the time has come to un-privatize some of our municipal assets in the name of accountability, if not democracy. (posted 2/07)
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