Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Paved with good intentions

The most extraordinary local news topic lately has been the situation at the Amherst Survival Center. The newspapers are full of inflammatory allegations and supposed “human rights violations.” Reports have been issued by Town agents. “Recommendations” have been made with written response required. Concerned citizens are banding together to restructure the place. The Select Board is being called upon to appoint a new Board of Directors.

Crisis! Chaos! Drama!

Excuse me?

I served on the Survival Center’s Board for almost five years, from 1998 – 2002, the last two as Board President, and remained on various committees into 2003. During that time, I and others worked hard to improve its financial, organizational and procedural structure. Some of our efforts were effective, others never were.

I was focused on what I saw as the place’s enormous untapped potential. Operations could run more efficiently, services could be provided in better ways, the population served could be expanded, more money could be raised, if only...

If only. There were myriad “if onlys,” and they frustrated me beyond belief.

After five years of trying and failing to persuade the necessary majority of the Board (whose membership changed much over that time, as terms expired and new people joined) to embrace my views of progress and improvement, I eventually resigned, burned out and glad to be leaving, and disappointed by what I couldn’t accomplish.

And you know what? That is exactly how that should work. I would have preferred a different result, but I have no complaints about the process. As a Board Member seeking change, the burden of convincing others to support my ideas was on me, and I was unable to do that. The majority won, and the minority lost and I was in the minority. Done deal, fair and square.

Eventually I realized that I was trying to make the place be something it was not. There was no obligation for it to conform to my ideal. And just because it had the opportunity to be something different, did not mean it had the responsibility to do so.

So then this brouhaha started a few weeks ago. Some (but not all) of the “recommendations” being bandied about are things I agree would improve the place, or are issues I supported strongly when I was on the Board. So you’d think I’d be happy about all this, happy to see the changes I’d sought way back finally seeming possible. But I’m not. Because the process is so wrong.

It is wrong because the place’s reputation and 30-year history of vital service to the community are being dragged through the mud by the unfounded allegations of a few angry people, which have spun out of control and devolved into an excuse to complain, criticize and disrespect anything at all about the Center. That is a disgrace, and the place, its staff, consumers and supporters deserve better.

It is wrong because regardless of “good intentions,” no outside individual or entity has any right whatsoever to impose its views on the place. The Survival Center is a private non-profit organization. It can be anything it wants to be. It can run any way it wants to run. Its Board of Directors has the only say here. Anyone who doesn’t like the place is free to not contribute money, goods, etc., but that is where that power ends.

It is wrong because, in my opinion, the Town and its agents are way out of bounds with their inappropriate behavior and statements in so many facets of this: misusing their power and their processes, distorting “facts,” blowing small details out of all proportion and invoking “confidentiality” to avoid accountability.

It is wrong because the newspapers are letting wild accusations go unchallenged, ignoring all question of possible agendas, axes to grind and conflicts of interest.

It is wrong because so much of what is being written and discussed indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the agency. I can’t begin to clarify all that here. But suffice it to say, the place is not about being everything to everybody. It is not about the people who don’t go there, or the services it doesn’t provide. It’s about the people who do go there, and the services it does provide, and there is much good in that.

The Survival Center, like any entity, could surely benefit from some changes. But not like this. If we start embracing the philosophy of “the ends justifying the means,” we will not like where we end up.

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