Volunteers in Local Government: Scabs or Extra Hands?

BUTCHER ON LA-At the end of my first piece on the LA City budget I announced my adoption of a Riverside storm drain as part of the City’s Adopt-a-Drain program. 


That the City of Riverside can number, count, and track each opening to its sewer system impresses me greatly. For years, I watched the City of Los Angeles attempt to count and keep track of its stuff. Is there a comprehensive list of city-owned properties available on-line yet? How ‘bout a centralized list of city contracts and city contractors? Any complete list of bad contractors including those who owe the City money? No list yet? I am shocked! 

No wonder the Controller has just found significant fault with the Airport’s contracting procedures: “LAWA must scrutinize and reform its bidding processes,” Controller Ron Galperin told the LA Times, on March 7, 2016. “Otherwise we have no way of knowing whether we are getting the best value for our money, which is what the competitive-bidding process was created to ensure.” 

My progressive friends mentioned the volunteering thing. As a good trade unionist, I understand concerns about volunteers replacing workers in public sector jobs and assured the topic due reconsideration. 

Plus, I remember the volunteers who now run the Palm Springs Animal Shelter can still detail the number of good jobs lost, the city funds frittered, the dog shit left unpicked up. Volunteers generally prefer the more glamorous work and are hard to schedule. 

To the contrary, the animal keepers at the LA Zoo appreciate the heck out of the zoo docents and will tell you they’d be lost without them. LA’s animal shelters have struggled to reach the right balance and now appear to work collegially even with a difficult but beautiful rescue community to the benefit of the animals. 

It’s a tough and complicated issue. 

In Los Angeles, there used to be various “volunteer” programs that both enhanced city services and afforded a potential path to good, essential city jobs. Remember Reserve Park Rangers? Reserve Animal Control Officers? Similar to LAPD’s reserve programs, these volunteers provided meaningful extra hands for critical work. Many veteran city workers started just this way. 

The City of Grand Rapids, Michigan gives MyGRcity points to entice its residents to adopt a fire hydrant and keep it clear of snow “in order to help firefighters quickly find and use the hydrant in an emergency. The program is open to individuals, families, businesses, and community organizations that want to ensure the safety of their neighborhoods.” 

“Grand Rapids appreciates the many members of our community who already maintain hydrants in their neighborhood and encourage everyone to … make the hydrant near you an official member of your family.” 

It has been reported that certain cities include naming rights with the adoption of fire hydrants. For now, my Riverside drain is affectionately called 2001579. 

The very first reaction posted to the NextDoor Neighborhood app was exactly the same as my union friends’ (minus the typo): 

“Hire more employees!! People need jobs! Your (sic) taking away possible jobs by doing that!!” 

The City of Riverside’s Communications Officer, Paul Pitchford responded promptly, thoroughly, and not at all defensively: 

“To clarify, City workers address storm drain issues all year. They do routine cleaning on a regular basis, inspect and clean basins, take care of the weeds that grow quickly in the warm summer months, clean debris that falls in the windy fall season, and make repairs as needed to get the storm drain lines ready for the winter. The Adopt a Drain program is designed to utilize the efforts of volunteers who have a chance to see the drains near their home or business on a daily basis, either to clear debris or call 311 so that a City worker knows there is a problem that needs attention. Thank you again for your consideration.” 

Finally, this commenter summarizes the discussion here, quenching all cynicism (I love her!): 

“My husband and I adopted drains. I don't believe any one government can do everything for its citizens and I am so happy to be able to help. There is so much I miss doing because of my work hours. Volunteering to spend a little time doing such a vital job fulfills my civic thirst - if only a little. I think it's such a simple solution for a potentially large problem. It's easy work and I get to do it on my schedule too. Thank you for allowing me to participate!”

(Julie Butcher writes for CityWatch, is a retired union leader and is now enjoying Riverside and her first grandchild. She can be reached at juliejbutcher@gmail.com) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.