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  • Last modified 901 days ago (May 26, 2016)

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Backing into development

“It is clear that business and community development are also important to our citizens. It is our intention to form a citizen group to research different options for us to consider.”

— Marion County Commissioners, in a March 28 letter to Jim Hefley

They’ve been trying to follow through on their intention for the better part of two months, but commissioners took a pause in the process after reviewing the applications of 14 people who have volunteered to serve.

The pool included government officials, but they want regular citizens, they said. Some parts of the county weren’t represented in the pool. And some applicants appeared to have negative attitudes that they believed could be detrimental (we counted just one in our review). They put out a call for more volunteers, and Commissioner Dan Holub wants to find a “mediator” to guide the group as it figures out just what it’s supposed to do and how they’ll do it.

There’s a proverb that keeps nagging at me as I contemplate how all of this has unfolded: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

If some would-be volunteers express skepticism, that should be expected. The concept is well intentioned, but the purpose of the committee is vague. Criteria for inclusion on the committee is unclear. There’s no indication of a time commitment or clarity of expected outcomes. Just who do they want, and what are they supposed to do?

We’ve been here before with the county, when commissioners decided to form an advisory group for emergency medical services when they lowered the qualifications for EMS director. With an ill-defined purpose, it wasn’t long before that group got sucked in to dealing with employee issues and operational procedures, although it was originally intended to weigh in on issues of medical protocol.

At the risk of souring the enthusiasm of some who volunteered, I suggest this is a good point for commissioners to re-boot the entire process. It’s time to work this thing backward from their original intent.

Instead of ending with a mediator, better described as a consultant, that’s where they need to start. An economic development consultant should be brought in, and their work should start with commissioners, not with volunteers.

Commissioners owe it to those they expect to volunteer to set out clearly the parameters for their work. A consultant can help them define the ground rules, including the level of autonomy the committee will have and how, if at all, economic development director Teresa Huffman will be involved in facilitating their work. Without this kind of definition, and with history as a guide, would-be volunteers have every right to be skeptical about how the committee will operate.

A consultant can also help to define the criteria by which volunteers will be selected, and here I draw on the wisdom of musician Frank Zappa: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

One norm from which commissioners should deviate is putting out a call for whatever group of volunteers comes their way. Instead, working with a consultant, they should define the kinds of volunteers that can move this initiative in the right direction.

Looking at committee composition in light of the county’s major employment sectors and directions for future growth would be a good start.

There’s little disagreement that manufacturing has potential to draw people and dollars to the county — one or more members should come from that sector. Like it or not, government is a huge economic driver, representing nearly a third of employment and wages in the county, and to exclude any government representation on the committee would be shortsighted. Service-based occupations employ four times as many people as manufacturing — surely that sector should be represented.

Within that context, commissioners also can look, if they wish, at what parts of the county are represented, but for a committee such as this, that should be of secondary concern. This wasn’t proposed as an ongoing advisory group, but rather as a kind of task force to develop recommendations for future direction.

Once commissioners have worked with a consultant to define all these things, they will be in a much better position to actively sell participation, and that they should, going after potential members with enthusiasm.

Volunteers, like businesses, are motivated by getting a return on their investment. They want to know that what they’re going to volunteer for matters, and they get gratification by seeing results.

If this committee is going to be anything more than an academic exercise, it needs more work on the front end, not the back. I’ll admit that the chances of that are slim — when this commission sets a course, it can be as hard to change as that of Titanic, even with evidence to the contrary.

Author C.S. Lewis put it well: Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.

It would seem here that backward would be the new forward.

— david colburn

Last modified May 26, 2016

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