Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cupcakes, Kids, Volunteers, Civility and Respect

You would have to be living in a cave to not have heard the story about Michael Wolfenson, the New Castle Town Councilman/cupcake vigilante. I know Michael, and I am quite sure that if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't; or at least not the same way. I would like to think that the boy’s parents would handle it differently next time too. The family friend who called the paper 5 weeks later too. Everyone would take a mulligan on this one if they could.

The national and even international media has made this into a story about the big bad politician picking on the little kids. To me, that is not what this story is really about. This is a story about civility and the public reaction to the story. Michael Wolfenson, regardless of your political leanings, regardless of your opinion on his local votes, regardless of where you stand on the Reader’s Digest site and regardless of where you stand on the great cupcake capitalism debate deserves to be treated with respect and civility. (Make no mistake about it, the boys also deserve respect, civility and whatever accommodation is appropriate for 13 year old boys.)

Michael Wolfenson is essentially a volunteer trying to help his neighbors, friends and town residents the best he can. Michael Wolfenson got involved in town politics because of an overwhelming desire to honor local residents killed in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. He spent years fighting for a singular cause because he knew in his heart it was the right thing to do. If you have been to the 9/11 memorial at Gedney Park, the very park in which this incident took place, you would agree his efforts were well worth it. He simply wants to help the community. You may not always agree with him on what is right, but his intentions are good.

I have said this in the past, but it is worth repeating here. I can assure you that neither he nor the other town board members are in it for the money. Town Board members are paid less than $10,000 a year. (The Supervisor gets approximately 5 times that amount.) My guess is that that works out to way less than minimum wage when you factor in the time they contribute.

We need people like Michael Wofenson in this town. We need volunteers. We need people to be on the School Board, the Town Board, the Zoning Board, the Planning Board, the Board of Assessment Review, the Board of Architectural Review, the Conservation Board, the Downtown Steering Committee, the Environmental Review Board, the Millwood Task Force, the Sustainability Board, the Recreation Commission, the PTA, New Castle Cares, LWV, the Horace Greeley Scholarship Fund, the Chappaqua School Foundation, the boards and coaches of AYSO, CYSC, GYL and NCBSA, and all the other ways in which neighbors volunteer to help neighbors and contribute to the community.

Who in their right mind would want to volunteer for the community when the reaction to all they do is personal attacks? Playing “gotcha journalism” with local volunteers does nothing other than to dissuade them from continuing public service. I know, I am one of those volunteers. I am a member of the CCSD Board of Education. I have also coached countless of my children’s sports teams. I have gotten the emails from the parents who use stop watches to track their children’s playing time or from the parents say, “I don’t want to tell you how to coach, but…” and then proceed to tell you how to coach.

During the difficult budget discussions of the last few years I have heard residents call the teachers names, the board members names and each other names when they disagree with their point of view. How is that going to help the situation? Ad hominen attacks are unnecessary and counter-productive. There are no "bad guys" in the budget debate. There are differing groups that need to recognize that the collective long-term success is contingent upon short-term sacrifice. By all.

Heck, I have seen residents of New Castle make anonymous comments picking on students for making Cum Laud, for making speeches at graduation and for their sports efforts. Why? These are kids, not much older than the cupcake entrepreneurs simply trying to find their voice, to plot a way through this crazy thing called life.

Last spring, I thought long and hard prior to filing to run for re-election to the School Board. The primary reason I hesitated at all was the consideration of being a public figure in this day and age. Heaven forbid you make a mistake, and look what happens. Add in the people who hide behind the anonymity of the internet to make personal attacks and you too would question your decision to volunteer.

Know this, to be a public figure, even if it is just a volunteer here in Chappaqua, means having to endure and come to terms with personal attacks. But it should not have to. If we as a community want to continue to attract residents to our community and, as important, to attract volunteers from among those residents, we need to treat each other and those volunteers with respect and civility. Challenge the ideas; don’t attack the person.

The sense I get is that in our rush to judgment, our rush to attack, our desire to bring down the person we fail to recognize that the system is strengthened by having multiple and alternative candidates, multiple and alternative volunteers. We are chasing those potential contributors away. You can’t “vote da bums out” if you have no alternatives bums for whom to vote.

Let us as a community rise above. Let us find a way to recognize and applaud these children’s entrepreneurial spirit and let them continue to dream big while also appreciating the good intentions, the time and effort that Michael Wolfenson and all the various organization volunteers give to the community.




Patty said...

Well said. I applaud your call to volunteerism but nothing in your rant addresses the fact that even volunteers and paid public officials (albeit minimal pay) still must demonstrate sound and solid judgment. We are a small community of neighbors and friends and when one of our children steps out of bounds (in this case selling of cupcakes in a town park) we expect that as adults and parents we can handle such a thing WITHOUT calling the police. The over the top national media attention is rooted in the fact that this struck a nerve as being an inappropriate response to a common childhood endeavor. “Every Town USA” has children running bake sales and lemonade stands. I do not know Mr Wolfenson and will take your word that he is a good man and one of solid character. But you can not make the case that because people volunteer or run for public office they are beyond reproach. I have heard and read countless arguments of support for Charlie Rangel because of his 40 year political career yet he violated many codes of ethics and broke tax and disclosure rules/laws. I do not mean to compare M Wolfenson to Rangel. I am pointing out that one can not hide bad actions and bad decisions behind the veil of public office or volunteerism. Criticizing the media is a shoot the messenger response.

Patty said...

i posteed a comment yesterday - I guess you only include comments you agree with

#1A said...

Actually Patty in my post of August 11th, I discussed anonymous comments. It is my fault that I have not displayed my comment policy more prominently so I give you the benefit of the doubt. Although I see you wish to hide behind the wall of anonymity I publish it anyway. I must admit, that I do not view this as a full time job and I did not even see your comment until a few minutes before I posted it.

As for not publishing something I disagree with, that is far from the truth. In fact, if you read my rant (your term), I never said that public figures such as Mr. Wolfenson are beyond reproach. I simply suggested that he deserves civility when you reproach him.

Did he do the right thing? I said in my first paragraph that I thought all the parties involved would have handled it differently if they had to do it over. Mr. Wolfenson even said as much in his own public statement. He made a mistake. I do not think it warrants death threats against him and his family. I do not think it warrants the vitriol spewed about the man.

While you say criticizing the media is a shoot the messenger response, you yourself say a few sentences earlier, "The over the top national media attention..." So we agree. The media over reacted, Wolfenson said he would do it differently next time and we are "a small community of neighbors and friends" and we should act that way in our initial actions and in our reactions to mistakes or differences of opinion.

Certainly, you would agree that we as a community can disagree yet be civil and respectful about it?

Patty said...

I saw no story or report on an media outlet (TV, RAdio, newspaper) that gave this story anything more than a brief mention. We are in a 24/7 news world with multiple outlets (internet, TV, radio, print) all competing for news. That is what I meant by over the top. I saw or heard no inaccurate reports. We were all surprised by how this spread but lets not forget that Chappaqua is the home of the Clinton so the media knows who we are. The infamous football stripper party made national news because Chappaqua had already been staked out as the soon to be home of the Clintons.

#1A said...

First Patty, I am not sure why you are making this about the media. I reread my post and I know my intention and no where does this question the media.

This rant [your term again] is about all of us as neighbors, friends, and humans being respectful and civil to each other even if we disagree. Actually, especially if we disagree. My point is also that without the respect and civility, we will lose the volunteers this community so badly needs and thrives on.

I am not really sure if you actually read the essay based on your comments. I do not understand the reference to Charles Rangel although I do think there is a huge difference between making a mistake and an ethical breach. I have little to no tolerance for breaches of ethics. As for the media, I have a lot of issues with them too, and that is for another rant one day, but suffice it to say that local media here in Chappaqua which online consists mainly of The Patch and NewCastleNOW are two very different types of blogs with seemingly different goals and different target audiences.

One, reports facts similar to a print newspaper and one intersperses fact with opinion in the same article without differentiating between the two. No value judgement there, just the way it is.

A significant difference I have with NCN is their comment policy. I do not think it is appropriate to have anonymous comments. Maybe that will be the subject of a future post, but for now, I will end this comment with the simple statement that as I wrote in my August 11th post, I do not accept anonymous comments and as such will not publish any more of your comments without a full name regardless of how innocuous the comments may be. I thank you for participating in this discussion and reading my blog. I hope that you see fit to comment again in the future using your real full name.

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