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June 1, 2010 > Volunteer to make a difference

Volunteer to make a difference

By Simon Wong

The City of Hayward's Volunteer Open House on May 24 was attended by many residents and business people interested in learning more about, or applying for vacancies on, the city's 17 boards, commissions, committees and task force.

'What makes the perfect volunteer?' has no definitive answer. Each body consists of people with different backgrounds, occupations, experiences and knowledge. This diverse range of perspectives and ideas, hopefully, represents the community and is essential for devising sensible and equitable solutions to complex problems that affect Hayward's citizens. Seriousness and the willingness to devote time are desirable.

"For me, it was about giving back. I grew up in Hayward and graduated from Tennyson High School. I've been here for a long time; the community has treated me well, said Dianne McDermott, a local business person and 10-year veteran of the Citizens Advisory Commission (CAC). "The CAC is responsible for distributing the US Department of Housing & Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant funding to many local non-profits which touch people's lives.

"Given the economic downturn, the last two years have seen a decline in CDGB funding despite increased demand from organizations whose services are needed by more people. The decisions become more difficult. For me, it was 'emotional' because all the funding-applicants are worthy organizations.

"Each commissioner visits two applicants in the Spring and Winter to assess the use of CDGB funds and the consequent benefit. You feel good and learn about the non-profits and opportunities to collaborate," explained McDermott.

Prior to joining the CAC, McDermott knew nothing about the CDGB funding process. This year she is considering applying to serve on the Planning Commission.

Al Mendall moved to Hayward, knew he wanted to remain in the city for a long time and wanted to become involved. He canvassed during elections and learned of volunteer opportunities with the city. He served on the CAC and is current chair of the Planning Commission. Serving in one capacity does not guarantee appointment to another committee. Mendall's third application for the Planning Commission was successful.

Applicants are asked to specify which positions interest them. Council keeps an open mind when interviewing and will bring other opportunities to the candidate's attention. Applicants are not constrained by their original choices. This is how McDermott, who originally applied for the Planning Commission, came to serve on the CAC.

"The Planning Commission does expect some experience and knowledge. There is a lot of difficult work. No knowledge of planning, or of what the city has done over the past few years, makes it extremely difficult to get up to speed. Appointees are often selected from other bodies because they are familiar with the city's business and have proven themselves," said Mendall.

City staff provides orientation and on-going training. Mendall recalls wryly the former consisted of a meeting that lasted for several hours. He left laden with copies of city ordinances and other information, wondering if his application had really been such a good idea.

"On-going training ranges from the Brown Act to conflicts of interest and other topics. Moreover, we don't have just one meeting at which we vote on a big issue. There are usually several advance work sessions to frame it, educate us and for further research. By the time we vote, we've prepared for several months so we can make a good decision," explained Mendall. "For a three-hour meeting, we typically receive a packet of 100 to 1,000 pages which we must read and digest. We must prepare questions, some of which can be answered in advance by staff or the business applicant whom we might also visit. Good preparation takes time and effort."

The content and frequency of meetings varies between bodies. The CAC follows a similar pattern each year - visits to all applicants for CDGB funding followed by the funding cycle, a period of concentrated evaluation and decision-making. When there was a lot of building activity, the Planning Commission met two or three times a month but now meets monthly, given the economic downturn.

"I'd recommend joining a commission. It's best to be pro-active. You might not be able to do much alone but serving provides the opportunity to influence what is around you. You learn much about your community and the people within it," stated McDermott.

"When I drive around the City of Hayward, I see things for which I had the chance to vote," Mendall added. "It's extremely rewarding to know I had a role."

The City of Hayward City Clerk's Office is accepting applications for vacancies on the city's boards, commissions, committees and task force. The deadline is Monday, July 16, 2010.

For more information, visit www.hayward-ca.gov or call (510) 583-4400.

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