President's Message: A Matter of Balance

by Mitch Pomerantz

As those of you who have been reading my columns for awhile likely know, I worked in the public sector for close to 34 years.  Hence, I think I can speak knowledgeably concerning the role of our civil servants - local, state and federal - in terms of balancing the various competing interests with which such public officials must interact.  That is what I wish to do in this month's column: reflect on the obligation/responsibility that such government types have relative to the two national consumer organizations of the blind.
This issue arrived on the front burner of my consciousness earlier this year when the president of the Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of America (RSVA) expressed to me his affiliate's belief that the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) was favoring the vendors division of the NFB, the National Association of Blind Merchants (NABM).  I was also made aware of an agency head who has apparently been pressuring his state's vendors to join that group.  Even prior to this, I had certainly observed a bias toward the Federation among members of NCSAB, the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, as an attendee at several of its meetings during my time as ACB president.
I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not begrudge the Federation or its leadership for trying to exert influence over the policymakers in work for the blind.  That is clearly its right as an advocacy organization.  No, my issue is with those state and federal civil servants who have, by their words and actions, demonstrated their bias toward one organization's policies or members while taking a salary from the taxpayer.  It is these individuals with whom I have a serious disagreement, and to whom this message is intended.
Let me first acknowledge the many state agency employees who are members of either ACB or NFB who truly set their personal allegiances aside in order to provide the best possible service to all blind people: ACB members, NFB members, and the vast majority who are not affiliated with either organization.  I know that these individuals exist because I hear about them from our members.  Someone will say to me: "He or she belongs to X organization, but is fair and objective with members of both consumer groups." I also know a number of agency officials and staff who purposely refrain from joining either organization of blind people because of their position in government.  While I don't necessarily agree that someone working in the blindness field needs to avoid affiliation, I certainly respect and understand that point of view.
One of the earliest lessons I learned as a new employee of the City of Los Angeles was that those of us whose paychecks came compliments of revenues obtained from the taxpayer had a responsibility to those taxpaying citizens to give the best service we possibly could.  And while I suppose this seems rather trite today, I still believe this sentiment to be wholly appropriate.  Given the overall lack of respect (deserved or not) toward government and those who work in the public sector, it seems particularly important for those working in the blindness field, whether in a state agency for the blind or in a federal entity such as RSA, to be fair and even-handed in the implementation of policies and the provision of services.
You may now be asking, "So what should be done when a state or federal bureaucrat plays favorites?"  From some, but thankfully not a great deal of personal experience, I can tell you that when a member of the public took issue with something I did or didn't do, he or she usually went over my head to my boss, who was the department's executive director.  When that occurred, I then had to justify my decision.  Fortunately, my judgment was pretty much on-target in most instances where a decision of mine was called into question by a member of the public.
Based on the concerns communicated to me by RSVA, a letter went out to the highest ranking RSA official at the time expressing ACB's sense that the agency was showing its bias toward NABM.  (A new RSA Commissioner, Janet LaBreck, has subsequently been named.)  Shortly thereafter I received a response offering RSA's position on the matter in question and pledging to work with ACB and RSVA in a more collaborative fashion.  Time will tell, as will RSA's actions.
In order to hold all governmental officials' collective feet to the fire, we, as consumers of services for the blind, have an important responsibility as well.  Our responsibility is to remind those aforementioned civil servants in writing and at public gatherings of their responsibility, and to further remind them if bias is shown in the implementation of policies or the provision of services that we can and will inform their superiors and demand action be taken to correct such bias.  Need I mention here that not only do we have a responsibility on behalf of our blind brothers and sisters, but a right to do so as citizens of a free country.  And to those of you who respond that the official's superiors hold a similar bias, I strongly urge you to then go up the chain of command, to the governor if necessary.  If that fails, you should consider alerting your local newspaper to the problem in a clear, concise letter to the editor.  What I know for certain is that sitting by complaining that nothing will change, so why bother, will definitely result in nothing changing.