Lifting local voices – leveraging citizen boards in your town’s government

BY TAYLOR BENNETT, COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB

There is a sentiment that’s often expressed in communities across West Virginia. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: The greatest resources we have are our people.

When it comes to local governments it’s not only true, it’s an idea that has been shaping our policy decisions for decades. Local governments create space for citizens to take an active role in the discussions which shape their daily lives through the use of citizen boards and commissions. 

This is great news for community members like you, who are able to use their experiences and insight to create local change. And also for local governments, who are able to make choices which are more responsive to the needs and ideas of their constituents. 

What is a citizen board or commission?

Citizen boards and commissions are small groups of community members who are usually appointed by the mayor, city council, or county commissioners. 

While the specific activities of a board or commission are defined by the people who set up the group, these groups are typically designed to provide expert advice to local elected officials and staff about a certain topic or issue. Most often they’ll do this by:

  • Creating or updating a document to guide decision-making. A Parks and Recreation Commission, for example, might oversee a needs assessment, determining what their community needs in terms of public recreation space and then make recommendations to the City Council or County Commission about where best to allocate their resources.
  • Participate in decision making processes. Local elected officials might attend a meeting of the board or ask commission members to attend a City Council or County Commission meeting so that they can receive feedback about specific issues. 
  • When appropriate, participating in budgeting. In some cases, commissions and boards are authorized by their local government to make determinations about how a particular subset of the budget is spent or oversee part of a project.
 

What “expert advice” do citizens give?

There are two types of expertise that a citizen commission of this kind can provide. First, a community member might be appointed to a board because they have a certain type of technical expertise. For example, if part of a person’s day job involves helping people be healthier through increased physical activity, they might be a great choice for a Parks and Recreation Commission.  

Second, community members carry a wealth of knowledge about their own experiences or communities that they are a part of. A great example of this kind of commission is the Youth Council recently established in Charleston. Receiving feedback about local policy from a group of young people allows Charleston’s local government to anticipate how their decisions will affect pressing issues like population loss, employment, housing, and economic development.

How you can participate

  • Find out what types of boards and commissions provide recommendations to local elected officials. Information about these groups should be readily available to the public and might be found online or by calling your local government. 
  • Attend meetings of a board or commission which interests you. All meetings ought to be open to the public and many boards will invite attendees to participate in discussions, even if they can’t vote on final decisions.
  • Let board members, local government staff, and elected officials that you’d like to be considered for a board or commission which interests you. Often, these groups are actively looking for people to become members, so be sure to let them know if you’re interested in being appointed.  

 

When it comes to local policy choices, the best policies are created when community members are able to shape the decisions that impact their communities. 

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