COLUMBIA — Michael Yoakum is the only college student in Columbia who gets to help make the city’s alcohol laws. As a volunteer student member of the Substance Abuse Advisory Commission, he gets to assist in the commission’s work of advising the City Council on how to create city policy on substance abuse.
Yoakum, a 19-year-old sophomore studying sports administration at Columbia College, has been on the commission since he was 16. In his own words, he “hit the ground running.”
“It’s cool to be involved and to be wanted and needed,” Yoakum said.
Yoakum was one of many members of city boards and commissions honored Thursday night at a city banquet at the Columbia Arts and Recreation Center. The boards and commissions, which are made up of volunteers, are an essential part of city government.
“They’re the eyes and ears of the council,” said Jo Sapp, a member of the Cable Television and Visioning Committees who has been serving on various boards and committees since the mid-80s.
Although the pay is, as Mayor Darwin Hindman put it at the banquet, a “big fat zero,” most members serve for the same reason: they want to be good citizens.
“I take my citizenship very seriously,” said Sapp, whose day job is as a fiction writer and editor.
David Johnston, an attorney who has served on the Community Development Commission since 1988, sees it as a way to serve the community.
“(Serving on a commission or board) is an opportunity for everyone to give back to the community, to take a load off of city officials,” Johnston said. “We feel it’s important to make the community as good as possible.”
Members come from varied backgrounds and possess many different skills. In their roles, they use their expertise to advise the council.
“The range (of talents) is amazing,” Hindman said at the banquet. “In Columbia, we have this incredible wealth of talent.”
Matthew Buckley, who is in a wheelchair and is on the Disabilities Commission, said he serves to share his knowledge of the disabled with the commission.
“I have a lifetime of personal experience with disabilities, and I feel like I can contribute valuable information,” Buckley said.
In addition to being able to share his experiences, Buckley said serving on the commission is fun.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “I get to work with a very diverse group of people, and I enjoy the interactions with the people and the commission.”
At the banquet, City Manager Bill Watkins acknowledged the relatively large number of volunteers in the city government.
“Columbia is a unique community because it has such an active citizenry,” Watkins said.
Members of boards and commissions spend varying, but significant, amounts of time working with their groups, anywhere from one meeting a month to 20 or more hours per month.
“(Serving on a commission) involves a tremendous amount of volunteer time,” Hindman said. “It shows dedication to your city.”
According to City Communications Director Toni Messina, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how many people serve on Columbia’s boards and commissions. According the city’s Web site, there are 37 boards and commissions with anywhere from one to 20 members in each group. In addition, there are several ad hoc committees, where membership and existence fluctuate.
At the banquet, Hindman and Watkins recognized council members for their unpaid service to Columbia. Watkins also thanked the mayor for his unpaid service and made a call to pay the mayor and council members in the future, a call to which the crowd collectively nodded in agreement.