Citizen Participation at the Local Level: Elected Officials, Advisory Board positions

This entry was contributed by on July 30th, 2015 at 9:26 pm and is filed under , , , , .
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This site welcomes a variety of viewpoints and perspectives on community engagement. Ideas shared here should not be considered as being endorsed by the UNC School of Government in any way as the School is nonpartisan and policy-neutral.

In American media outlets, there is no shortage of news about politics at the national level. Candidates for high-profile offices do their best to be noticed by news and opinion outlets, and those outlets are happy to oblige. This symbiotic relationship leads many media consumers to pick a side and cheer for a team, much like sports fans. Positions are often painted as absolutes with few nuances.

While national politics demands much of our attention, it arguably has less effect on us than we might think. Local issues are much more likely to affect us directly.

We as residents have several opportunities to learn more, be heard, and to shape the communities in which we live.

Running for local office or sitting on a decision-making board may be the perfect way to serve as a public official.

Municipal and County Elected Boards

One of the most prevalent forms of government in North Carolina is the Council-Manager form: in this case, a professional manager is hired to run the municipality or county, much like a chief executive officer runs a business. He/she is generally in charge of hiring top staff such as police and fire chiefs, planners, and other administrators. This person reports to a board or council of elected officials. Generally, these elected officials oversee the organization in a part-time capacity and represent the interests of people who live in the community.

Local elected officials don’t get the attention of national candidates for office, but they have significant influence. Among other things, they have final say over a city or county’s budget, including the tax rate. They also influence planning and zoning regulations that can greatly affect a community’s appearance, preservation, and/or development.

Elected officials at this level don’t have to be experts. They are usually professionals who keep their day jobs and have an interest in serving their community. Because the positions are usually part-time, local elected officials will never get rich from the reimbursements they receive (I know a few mayors who put in so many hours that their pay is probably close to minimum wage).

Side note: locally-elected officials in North Carolina have an excellent resource in the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill. The School provides training that elected officials can use to gain a better and broader understanding of local government functions.

Advisory Boards

There are also several advisory boards in most communities that eagerly seek new participants. There’s a good chance there’s an opening right now in your community. Here are a few of the most common.

Planning

One advisory board that has a substantial amount of influence is the planning or development board. While paid city or county staff members work directly with businesses, developers, and other organizations, they often seek input from a planning board. The staff informs the board of volunteers and makes recommendations. The board in turn considers the information, works as a group to build a consensus, and usually votes about whether the proposal is a good idea. From there, the decision is relayed to elected officials who ultimately decide whether to move forward to or reject the proposal. The planning board’s recommendation is usually mentioned when the elected officials make their decision. They are not obligated to follow the planning board’s lead, but they frequently do.

Planning board members are usually appointed by city or county officials. While some may receive a stipend (mileage reimbursement, for example), the positions are usually volunteer. It’s not uncommon for planning board members to eventually run for council or county commission.

Human Relations

Human relations boards consider a broad range of topics, many of which are related to issues of diversity, race relations, and fairness. Their efforts may include anything from the planning of a culture-themed festival to addressing issues of perceived fairness.

Human relations volunteers are also appointed by local elected officials. They usually work with a staff member who assists the group and acts as a liaison to the organization.

Parks and Recreation

Anyone who has attended a youth soccer game or coached a volleyball team knows that organized sports require a lot of work. In many cities or counties, a paid parks and recreation staff oversees these events as well as festivals and other public events. Different communities have different priorities, so parks and recreation departments often seek guidance from an advisory board. These parks and recreation boards help influence what programs are offered locally. They also make recommendations to staff and elected officials.

Each of these citizen advisory groups usually meets once or twice a month, depending on the community, and the meetings are often held during evening hours with the recognition that most board members work during the day. While no one will gain fame and fortune serving as an advisory board member or as a local elected official, they will have a real impact on their community.

To learn more about opportunities in your community, contact your local clerk’s office to ask about board or committee openings. The clerk is likely to be quite grateful for your interest and point you in the right direction.

9 Responses to “Citizen Participation at the Local Level: Elected Officials, Advisory Board positions”

  1. Michelle H.

    Thanks for spreading this worthy message. What kind of involvement do you recommend to people who do not feel that they have the time or interest to serve as an elected or appointed board member?

    Reply
    • Brian Bowman

      Michelle, thanks for asking. The time needed for service on local boards depends on the community and culture of the board. Some city councils work through meetings quickly, while others do not. Some advisory boards require an hour or two a month. Again, this depends on the style of the board.

      If time is an issue, a resident can certainly become more engaged by connecting to the organization through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Nextdoor. These provide an excellent way to keep up with what’s important to the organizations and to provide feedback. Users will also be better informed during the next election.

      Reply
  2. Katy Harriger

    Thank you for reminding us of the importance of local government, Brian. As a political scientist I am always distressed at how low the turnout is for local elections – especially the school board – when what these people do is so important to the quality of life in our communities. I try regularly to get my students interested in politics to look for internships at the local level but most want to go to D.C. I think you are right that the media focus on national politics has much to do with this.

    Reply
    • Brian Bowman

      Katy, you make an excellent point: media coverage of national governance is generally more exciting than what goes on at town hall. It’s easy to see senators, representatives, and presidents more as celebrities than as public servants. At the same time, we may not be able to recall the names of the people who determine our tax rate and local ordinances.

      I don’t know what would change this culture, but it certainly is interesting to observe. Thanks for all you do, Katy, to educate the voters within your sphere of influence!

      Reply
  3. Emily Edmonds

    Many great points here, Brian!
    I have seen some neat success stories from “Citizen Trainings,” a program that matches citizens with a department (or several departments) to demonstrate for them exactly what their local government does. This seems to me an inexpensive way to raise the level of awareness among citizens about how their government operates and to increase knowledge about and support for local government issues.
    It seems that local government may finally be getting its chance to shine. As you so rightly point out, the national politics spotlight takes attention away from local government – but that era may be ending, as we see that public confidence in national political issues continues to steadily erode. For younger folks who are beginning to purchase property, build careers, and open businesses in our towns and counties, that lack of trust at a national level can drive more people to an interest in supporting and improving local governments.

    Reply
    • Brian Bowman

      Emily: Yes, those “citizen trainings”, a.k.a. “citizen academies”, are gaining traction. They’re a great resource for all involved; the resident learns more about how the organization works, and the city or town establishes a relationship with one of its stakeholders. Citizen academies are much easier to find than they were even a few years ago. Thanks!

      Reply
  4. Stephen Hopkins

    Thanks Brian for bring this process to the blog. While serving on the different boards are an important park of community engagement, in most cases its a flawed system. I have served on a few boards in Durham and have witness the flawlessness of this system because elected officials appoint people to these boards/commissions who won’t rock the boat even if the boat needs rocking. When citizens are willing to serve, most want to know that their opinions are given valuable consideration and that their participation means something. Again thanks Brian.

    Reply
    • Brian Bowman

      Stephen, thank you for saying that. You’re right that in many communities a small number of elected officials will recommend members of various boards and committees; their recommendation will usually go before the full board for a public vote. This is another reminder of the importance of local elections. Your thoughtful comment is much appreciated. Thanks for your service. BB

      Reply
  5. Brian Bowman

    Just a reminder that today is election day in many cities in North Carolina. Plenty of mayoral and council seats up for grabs. Good luck!

    Reply

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