Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Mar-Apr 2017 issue

St. Paul to City Hall: The Valuable Roles of Citizen Volunteers

UnmachtSPCHBy David Unmacht

At this time of the year, city councils are looking to fill vacancies on the myriad volunteer committees and commissions that make up the backbone of city government. Whether it’s for a statutory committee, such as a charter commission, or an optional group, such as an economic development committee, local leaders are needed to fill these positions for important legal, policy, strategic, and operational purposes. And it can often be difficult to find enough citizens to fill these seats.

I have worked with many of these city committees in various roles over the course of my career. I’ve helped city councils interview interested candidates, I’ve staffed committees, and I’ve presented before commissions. It is rewarding and fulfilling to see effective and engaged citizens weigh in on the important issues in a city.

Citizen volunteers bring passion and new ideas. And, yes, they sometimes bring self-interest—which is not in and of itself a conflict. If a parent has children who use the city parks facilities, it’s perfectly fine for the parent to want to serve on a parks committee in an effort to make a difference in these programs and services. Citizen members of volunteer boards can be strong candidates for other appointed roles or even future candidates for elected office.

Recently, I’ve reflected on how important citizen leaders are as well as the larger purpose they serve. I offer four novel ways to think about their role in the city, and encourage you to give these ideas thoughtful consideration in your city to see how applicable they may be to your interests.

Community leader
A member of a city committee or commission is a community leader. Community leaders step forward to participate in decision-making. They serveHands together in a huddle in a representative capacity in formal settings—such as meetings—but also in informal gatherings and social outings. They commit personal time and energy in service to the city.

Community leaders are instrumental to effective governance. Along with the elected officials and appointed staff, they represent the third leg of a community delivery system model. Community leaders are committed, dedicated, and valuable.

Policy advisor
A member of a city committee or commission is a policy advisor. Policy advisors serve on a particular committee or commission appointed by the city council to provide oversight on a specific business purpose important to the community.

Members react to the issues on your agenda, but also plan for the future. Their talents, skills, and experiences help the city to frame and shape policies, programs, and services. In some instances, a commission may have statutory responsibilities and others are purely local in origin and assignment. Policy advisors are knowledgeable, participatory, and studious.

Civic ambassador
A member of a city committee or commission is a civic ambassador. Civic ambassadors take great pride in their community. They care deeply about the future of the city and are willing to promote, support, and assist in the projects and activities. They are citizens first and foremost, but their role creates opportunities for them.

They have access to public officials that others may not have; they may be your friend, acquaintance, neighbor, or colleague. They may travel or represent the city in settings outside of their formal volunteer assignment. Civic ambassadors are helpful, accessible, and engaged.

Interested observer
A member of a city committee or commission is an interested observer. Interested observers have opinions, and those opinions count. They should not be hesitant to offer positive, supportive input as well as constructive critiques and suggestions.

Interested observers take more than a passing interest in how the city is run, and they sometimes get to see the highlights and the lowlights. They have the opportunity to learn how ideas are developed, policies framed, and decisions implemented. Interested observers pay special attention to what is happening in the city and know what is going on. Interested observers are informed, opinionated, and needed.

Cities typically do not have a formal job description for these volunteer positions, although almost universally the purpose and function of a committee or commission is laid out in statute, ordinance, resolution, or council intent. I encourage city officials to add—even informally—the honor and obligations of community leader, policy advisor, civic ambassador, and interested observer to your expectations for filling these valuable citizen roles in city government.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dunmacht@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.

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