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Board It Up! ~ pt. 2: Civic BODs

October 1, 2017

In a previous post, I wrote about not-for-profit BoDs. I’d like to give some attention to another sort: the civic board. In the first post regarding boards, the focus was on the not-for-profit world.

For three years now this month, I’ve been involved with a parks board in my local town. It’s been an interesting adventure. I participated in a citizen’s academy in 2014, which is essentially a crash course in civics offered every fall for interested residents. Since I come from a land use planning background I probably didn’t really need to take the course, as I understood most of the elements it covered….however being out of the public sector full-time for a number of years, it served as a way to brush up a bit, and not every jurisdiction is run in the same manner. The course was also a gateway to meeting other residents and civic leaders, and figuring out how to get more involved in the community.

Until one gets involved, the differences between civic and not-for-profit boards are not apparent, but there’s a few substantial differences:

  • Attaining the position. In this civic BoD I was appointed by my local Mayor, and that appointment was required by receiving a blessing from the City Council. That was completely different from being elected through a voting process by the membership in the nonprofit board. In this case I went through an application process with the City Clerk that received an evaluation, then the Mayor invited me to an informal interview of sorts. It was a friendly and frank discussion concerning my views on how to improve the city not only from a parks standpoint, but also larger picture matters dealing with economics, urban planning, transportation, and community unity.
  • Municipal codes and resolutions. The board exists and operates under the civic umbrella of codes and resolutions; operating, at the end of the day, per the direction of the Mayor and City Council. The makeup of the board can change at any time to serve the mission and larger purposes of the jurisdiction. There are no bylaws in a civic board setting.
  • Civic duty. My duty is civic-based and that of a recommending body (for most matters), opposed to my fiduciary role with the nonprofit board….but that doesn’t make the responsibility any less significant. In some ways, my board position in a civic setting carries more responsibility because my recommendations, decisions, votes and advisement for staff involve funding from tax dollars.

What do you (or should you) want to do on a civic BoD?

  1. Champion a cause. Much of the focus and board time involves planning community events and playground equipment. I’ve chosen to focus on trails in the community; specifically maintaining existing trails, building new trails, connectivity to the larger regional trail network, and trails signage.
  2. Support. I see myself in some respects as an extension of the staff.
  3. Advise. It’s easy to let staff do all the work on the board, but I believe I’ve been appointed to bring my background, skill set and ideas to the table. This advisement also extends to other board members in both meetings and casual conversations outside of meetings. For example….I draw from my planning background in numerous ways, especially from a holistic project management perspective….so while I want to see quick results pertaining to elements such as trails improvements, I understand why it’s not a quick fix and why it isn’t going to happen overnight — considering all the factors at hand such as coordination with stakeholder groups, procurement processes, in-house staff priorities, council support — name any number of factors. Not everyone comes to the board understanding all the moving parts involved, but having experience in planning at the civic level I can help to shed a little light on project efforts, its timeliness (or perceived lack of) and what goes into it behind the scenes.
  4. Represent. In the community, I speak with folks and let them know I’m on the city’s parks board. I interact with families around town and ask for their opinions and suggestions pertaining to parks and improvements.
  5. Run interference when necessary. Sometimes situations arise for which it may be more appropriate for the board member to engage the community, serving as political cover for the staff. In my case, I’m not interested in running for city council nor do I have higher political ambitions….and for purposes of running interference with community members when problems arise, this is perfect as I have no problem putting myself out there in that regard.

Serving on my local parks board has been an interesting and enriching experience, but completely different from the not-for-profit board I’m also involved with. In terms of similarities between the two, I’ve learned that they’re only as effective as the participants who inhabit them. That’s where the level of dedication comes in, and why that factors in so heavily when it comes to the level of acuity and willingness on the part of the members, engagement of topics, frank and constructive exchanges of views, making decisions, and the level of support for projects.

That said, I’m currently spearheading an effort to improve trails through signage improvement efforts, establishing connections on a local level, in addition to a larger regional network. More on this when it develops further!

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