No matter how big or how small your city is, it likely has a couple of boards or commissions with resident volunteers in charge of making decisions or recommendations. Some municipalities have no problem filling vacancies when they occur, but others do, so The Municipal reached out to find some ideas of what to do to keep those seats filled.
Lynn Tipton, director of Florida League of Cities University, explained that in Florida there are mandatory boards like land planning (aka planning and zoning), permanent boards like parks and recreation and ad hoc boards that may be necessary for a short period of time like six months for a specific project, for example.
Tipton said one best practice the league recommends and some of its members have enacted is having an application process. She said you might have a willing, passionate volunteer, but they don’t live within the city limits.
“You won’t know that without an application. We love that they’re eager, but if they’re not qualified, it won’t help,” she said.
The applications help put the right volunteers on the board that will be the best fit for them and the city while also informing city officials about how long they’ve lived in the city and what other boards and committees they have served on or currently serve on. Tipton suggested starting with a basic application, and then it can be expanded to look at areas of expertise and interest.
“Some do interviews — especially for ad hoc committees where expertise and ability or historical perspective is important,” she said.
By historical perspective, she meant residents who’ve lived in the city a long time and were there the last time a building project took place or was considered and dismissed, for example.
Also important to the success of filling vacancies is “a full review of the expectations — that’s where a lot of committees live and die,” she said.
Without that review of expectations, some committee members “go in expecting X and instead get Y — it’s not what they expected, and they have a horrible experience and quit.”
She said it’s up to the chair of the committee, city staff or the mayor to go over those expectations, the length of time they’re expected to serve and their involvement with city staff — what they can and cannot help with and which staff they should reach out to.
Tipton said having a clear agenda for meetings is important for the success of these boards and committees and called it a “combination of art and science.” The chair should keep the group on track and not overload the agenda, even if someone on the committee tries to add items.
“People don’t want to sit through horrible meetings; they’ll quit. If you start to think, ‘I’d rather be at the dentist,’ it’s not a good sign,” she said with a laugh.
In today’s digital era, Tipton recommended that boards and committees be given a webpage on the city’s website. This page would feature meeting dates, a list of board members, the group’s purpose and objectives and meeting minutes.
“It’s going to fall to city staff to keep them up to date. There’s nothing worse than going online and seeing that the most up-to-date minutes are from 2021. Make sure what you’re putting out there is timely and accurate,” she advised.
Tipton admitted that filling vacancies on permanent boards can be tougher, and sometimes, it’s because no one leaves. The league advises setting term limits and having people stagger getting off the boards, so not all the experienced people leave at the same time. Three-year terms are optimal, according to Tipton.
“Of those cities who’ve really had success, they’ve asked those board members who are leaving to find their replacement,” she said, adding, “‘Find someone who cares as much you do’ is a good thing to tell them.”
While filling seats can be challenging, it can be equally difficult to ensure members attend meetings. Tipton said, “If they’re blowing off meetings, it might fall to the person who appointed them to have that conversation.”
Putting an attendance requirement in is totally okay, and that gives one the option to say, “You’ve missed a lot of meetings, and if you miss one more, we have the option to replace you.” Or if the vision of the board or committee has changed to say, “If you don’t share the vision anymore, it may be time to cycle off.” Those attendance expectations should be covered at the beginning of the term.
Tipton said some cities set term limits but offer the option to extend the term if the person is really valuable, “or plug them in somewhere else if you have a real gem.”
When a person’s term is up, they should “get two minutes in front of the council for a pat on the back, a thank-you and a certificate acknowledging their service.”
One reason cities might struggle to fill seats is because they’re relying on their own circle of acquaintances, and they need to cast a wider net. A mayor or chair can give a command to the council to cast a wider net — to come up with three names of people from their districts who are not currently serving on a board or commission. They might go to homeowner’s associations and determine who are the leaders or look for other leaders in the community.
It’s vital to get information out so people understand that the committees exist and what they do. It might spur interest. She also suggested being flexible with meeting times.
“In Florida, we have a lot of retirees who can meet during the day and would prefer a daytime meeting,” she explained.
Municipalities can also hold a Volunteer Day Open House where all the boards and committees are present — it’s a chance to thank them but also for the public to learn about their existence and who serves on them. Serving a simple punch and cookies is adequate.
Tipton also suggested that if a city is really struggling to fill boards, a solution might be to combine a couple of them. She also advised to take advantage of the networking available through municipal associations and other associations for clerks and mayors.
“The value in networking is gold — it can save you months of researching,” she said.
Meredith Houck, communications manager for the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said, “Our municipalities have reported success through local government 101/citizen academies as well as group engagement by connecting with neighborhood groups and business groups, etc., and the elected officials making the ask for participation.”
She cited the city of Florence, S.C., as an example of increasing participation as a result of its City University.
Cape Girardeau, Mo. — Success story
According to Cape Girardeau Mayor Stacy Kinder, several years ago the city was struggling to fill vacancies on boards and commissions, but they’ve since enacted several changes that have turned things around.
Kinder said when she joined the council in 2018, “there was pretty low participation — even on the council.”
It was a much-talked-about topic, and city officials really looked into it and explored doing a few things right away.
“We are seeing the fruits of that now,” she said.
Many of the initiatives officials put into place are things that Tipton recommended, like applications and term limits.
“Our staff created a citizen’s academy that runs two times a year — it’s an eight-week course that meets once a week and generally has 15 to 20 participants in each session,” Kinder said.
Kinder shared that her public information officer, Nicolette Brennan, coordinates that program.
Brennan shared that at each week’s session, participants visit a city department, meet the staff and learn how the department works. This includes what the department does and how it’s funded.
“We also delve into issues,” Brennan said. “One big issue for us — and I’m sure for others — is streets. How do we prioritize them and where do we get the funding?”
Brennan said 20 people per session is usual and includes “a mix of the general public, retirees, members of the media and our own employees.” She added, “We do spend time, too, encouraging them to apply for boards.”
She shared some people wouldn’t run for council but may be interested in serving on another board, or some want to be more hands-on physically and would help with cleaning up a park or a neighborhood.
“We talk about all the different ways everyone can be a leader,” Brennan said.
Mayor Kinder said the citizen’s academies have “generated good interest — these people often apply to get on committees.” She added, “Several years ago, we took a deep dive, looking at the different wards and who were part of committees and realized several wards were underrepresented, so we set about trying to rectify that — by getting the word out and having council members in those areas encourage residents to apply.”
Another change the city made was setting term limits. Kinder said, “Some occupied seats for 20 years, and quite frankly, that contributed to not a lot of openings and (kept) awareness among the general public down. The flip side of that is having very well-seasoned and learned people.”
Regardless, most of the city’s boards and commissions have enacted six- to eight-year term limits.
“If the president of the United States can’t serve more than eight years …” Kinder started, noting with that in mind, she thought Cape Girardeau’s term limits were reasonable.
When asked if there was any pushback from those long-serving volunteers, she admitted there were some.
“Sure — but it was coming from a real interest and passion on their part,” she said. “Some people genuinely want to be of service, but we’re a city with a population of over 40,000, so there are lots of different ways to get involved.”
Open applications/record keeping
Determining how to get the word out falls mainly on PIO Brennan, who said the city uses a mix of traditional and digital methods. Council members also spread the word. They post upcoming vacancies in the municipal building and online.
“Often that information is picked up by our media partners,” Brennan said.
It’s important to communicate the basic facts, according to Brennan. What is the opportunity? How does the city make it accessible and available to apply? Brennan said the city communicates what board openings are coming up, when they need to apply by and where to find applications and what the group does. She said some boards require living within the city limits, and city officials have limited residents to serving on one board or commission at a time.
Cape Girardeau also asks applicants for their top choice and what other boards they might be interested in. Some people have a general interest in serving while others only want to serve in specific roles.
The city uses Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn; additionally, it sends email newsletters.
“We do interviews with a spotlight on board members, giving the public a chance to hear what they do and who’s involved.”
She said the city always accepts applications, and it keeps the applications for a year. “It’s so important to bring all kinds of people and get different opinions and strengths — that’s how you get the best decisions. If you’re pleased with your governance and you’re just cruising along, you don’t think about it, so we bring it to their attention. People want to serve if given the opportunity,” she said.
Mayor Kinder said city clerk Gayle Conrad and her staff maintain the records and applications. They track which members are eligible to run again, which committees have openings and the number of meetings missed by members.
They have a requirement that committee members can’t miss more than three meetings in a year. Requiring attendance and participation helps the city ensure that it still has the best people in spots.
She advises others to think about some of the things they’ve done because they’ve certainly seen success.
“We’re at the point now where people feel crushed because we have a bunch of applicants now,” Kinder said. From Florida, Tipton concluded, “It’s from these boards and commissions where you grow your future council — they already know more than the average bear and that’s wonderful!”