Revitalizing Democracy: Is it Time to Rethink Local Boards and Commissions?

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More than hundred years ago, Progressive Era reformers, among the ranks of whom included former President Theodore Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and Mary Munford, sought to end corruption and make local governments more democratic and efficient through restructuring political institutions.  As part of the reforms, cities adopted structural changes, such as what would be called the council-manager form of government, in which elected City Council members would make policy decisions and a City Manager would formulate policy, manage the administration of local government and engage the public on substantive policy issues. With these municipal reforms, citizen advisory bodies were conceived of as an accountability mechanism to ensure democratic legitimacy, effectiveness in local administration and to prevent corruption. They are responsible for providing policy recommendations to the City Council and direction for executive administration.

Although obscure to many citizens, local boards and commission remain a vital component for ensuring deliberative, inclusive and participatory democracy. It is in these bodies where ideas and policies affecting the day-to-day lives of residents are formulated and deliberated. Yet often local boards and commissions are far from transparent, accountable or participatory. Since the first municipal reforms were enacted, there have been ongoing questions about what might be done to revitalize these institutions and ensure that they enhance deliberative democracy and operate according to their intended purpose.

Membership of boards matters greatly because who is on the boards and commissions determines how inclusive and representative the policy ideas to tackle our most pressing challenges will be. In other words, policy recommendations from board and commissions to City Council or the City Manager’s office will only be as representative of the community as its boards members are, and representation should be conceived broadly in terms of socio-economic status, race, partisanship and different types of expertise and knowledge. Membership also matters because the citizen advisory boards are meant to serve as a check on executive power. To ensure the independence and legitimacy of the citizen advisory bodies and of the policies recommended, appointments should neither be a form of patronage nor should they be made with the intent of simply ratifying the preexisting beliefs and positions of those in power.

On the one hand, we as citizens have a responsibility to make this happen. February 7 marks the deadline to submit an application to apply for a local board or commission. City Council can only choose members based on the applications it receives. On the other hand, City Council needs to do more to leverage technology to engage the public in these important roles.  This includes everything from improved clarity surrounding openings, a consistent and well documented application process, easily discoverable lists of current members (including a clear way to electronically communicate with members), and systemically distributed agendas and minutes (some of which is required by Virginia law).  It should be noted this is valuable not only to potential board members but also the community writ large.

Additionally, City Council should also take a closer look at how it might innovate the appointment process. Other than the school boards, which use popular election, the selection of members to serve on the majority of boards and commissions is accomplished through an application process and determined in a closed-door deliberation by City Council. This process may still make sense for some boards and commissions, especially for those that struggle to attract applicants. However, for those boards where there is greater competition, inequitable access to positions of power, or where public trust is low, a more public and accountable process could increase legitimacy. For example, in December, the City Council passed a resolution for a new procedure to appoint the next member of the Police Civilian Review Board. Rather than a closed review of candidates, applicant information is public and applicants will be invited to participate in a public forum during early-mid February. We should observe this processes carefully and evaluate whether it might be replicated to other boards and commissions.

In the early 1900s, Progressive Era reformers had a limited understanding of the needs of all citizens, especially the needs of racial minorities, when the new local governance structures were designed and implemented. Yet, that should not detract from the intent of those reforms to make government more transparent, accountable and participatory. Charlottesville is at a key inflection point in which many are deliberating how to make government more equitable and responsive to the needs of everyone who resides here. Revitalizing local democratic institutions and practices must include public deliberation and engagement around what is required both of our government officials (whether elected or appointed) and our citizens. From our political officials and institutions, we need more transparency and accountability, which can be accomplished, at least in part, by greater openness, meeting citizens “where they are,” and  leveraging technology to engage the public in decision-making processes. But, just as important, we need more informed and regular participation from our citizens. Local boards and commissions are a vital means through which citizens have the opportunity to be co-producers for a more transparent, accountable, inclusive and equitable democracy.

Carah Ong Whaley is lecturer in the Department of Politics at UVA and currently teaching a course on Local Politics and Lucas Ames is the Founder and Board Chair of Smart Cville.  Also check out this blog where Professor Ong Whaley’s students write about Virginia Politics and Elections.

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