Community Participation Officer Explained

Mandi Jo Hanneke

Participation in government by the residents of Amherst is extremely important. And that participation can take many forms. The simplest and possibly least involved is voting. It is also one of the most important, as it is the best way to gauge the public’s opinion on the issues raised in campaigns1.

But there are many other ways to participate — running for office, writing letters, attending meetings and joining a board or committee.2 But how does a resident know what’s happening and what openings there are? And, how do Town officials make sure that the residents who are interested in increasing their involvement in Town affairs know how to do so?

That’s where the Community Participation Officer, outlined in the proposed Charter (Section 3.3(d)), comes in. The Community Participation Officer, which can be an existing employee assigned the duties as part of their current job, was conceived of and championed by Meg Gage on the Charter Commission.

She argued that in any government, there needs to be someone whose job it is to let the community know how to get involved. But beyond that, Meg Gage envisioned the Community Participation Officer taking an active role in recruiting residents to participate—going out and asking for volunteers for boards, especially from demographics that are underrepresented on our volunteer boards now (people of colors, residents of apartment complexes, young residents, etc).

So, what is the Community Participation Officer’s job? As outlined in the Charter, he or she will have four specific duties designed to increase the level of engagement of the residents:

  1. Provide support for individuals interested in being involved in local government;
  2. Devise and implement strategies to enhance public engagement;
  3. Conduct community outreach efforts to increase participation by underrepresented residents in Town government; and
  4. Aid in planning and conducting of District Meetings.

The Community Participation Officer will also analyze the data on resident engagement and submit reports on the efforts to both the Town Manager and the Town Council. In addition, the Town Manager will be able to assign the Officer other duties.

This is an important role in the proposed Charter. The Town is served better when many residents have their voices heard — not just the same 100-200 that make the rounds to the various committee meetings and forums. The Community Participation Officer will have a vital role in making sure as many residents as possible are engaged—attending forums and district meetings, to name just a few ways.

Having a person in Town whose job it is to reach out to the various constituencies in Town, learn how to engage them, and then be the resource for other Town officials when they need to reach out, is a great way to encourage a wider range of residents to get involved. This is one of the many ways to ensure that participation by all residents doesn’t decrease with the adoption of the charter.

The Community Participation Officer is an important part of the proposed Charter, even if people aren’t talking about it.

1We currently have a dismal rate of participation in this area; see Nick’s post here and my post here on how the Charter will result in an improvement in this area.

See my post expanding on this issue here.

Comments 6

    1. Post

      Such a position could be created, either by the SB or Town Manager, or through Town Meeting doing so, potentially via the TMCC SPP committee on which you serve. Meg Gage thought it was so important to do this that she wanted it in the Charter. The rest of the Commission agreed; so it’s in there. If the Charter passes, the position won’t be at the whim of whatever leaders we have; it will be required. Currently, if created, it could be abolished (either with or without Town Meeting vote, depending on how created). That’s the beauty of putting it in the Charter. The position must be in the government, ensuring that there is a person who will be tasked with engaging the residents of the Town and encouraging them to participate in government in whatever ways they have time for.

  1. We already have hundreds of residents engaged in town government -all of who will be removed if the flawed Charter proposal passes. Did you vote for this position to try to make up for this loss of direct citizen participation in Town governance? Seems like closing the barn door after the cows you forced the cows out.

    1. Post

      You are right, we have hundreds engaged in Town government right now, most of whom will remain engaged because they are serving on a volunteer board or committee, positions which will not disappear. (there are at least 340 non-town meeting member positions for residents to serve on in this town) I voted for this position because it is important to engage all residents in Town, not just the few who have the time to join a board or committee (or the even fewer who have the time to spend 40+ hours per year, concentrated into 6 weeks in the evenings). This position will work to recruit underrepresented populations to those volunteer boards and committees.

      Further, participation isn’t just Representative Town Meeting, despite what you may think (which is limited to 254 residents). It’s volunteers on all those boards and committees where the plans are crafted and decisions are made. That isn’t going away. It’s also attending, participating, and speaking at forums and meetings where the future of Amherst is being discussed before the plans are crafted, not after. Attendance there is just as important, if not more so, than the ability to vote on the final budget for the Town, or the bylaw itself, because that’s where the crafting of the policies happens. The Community Participation Officer will serve to ensure that people who can only make a meeting or two a year know when the public forums are, know when the district forums are, and know when the elections are, so that they can show up and be heard when it matters–before the policies are crafted and the budgets drawn up. It is vitally important for our town’s elected representatives to reach out to and hear from the “non-regular” contributors. It doesn’t really happen now and this position will enable all residents to get involved.

    2. I have every reason to believe that the hundreds of residents currently engaged in town government will continue to be involved under the new charter: as candidates, campaign volunteers, committee members, outspoken advocates, etc. What I’m most excited about the charter is that it will give the thousands of us who are not able to be town meeting members a seat at the table. Town meeting operates in a bubble because we currently have no way to effectively judge public opinion. This is best done through the ballot box when we, the voters, can voice our opinions that are formed through meaningful debate during campaigns. Right now, we have no campaigns for the majority of our “public officials” (Town meeting members who are quasi public officials under our current Representative Town Meeting form of government). I want there to be a range of opportunities for participation in town government so that whatever our interest and ability to participate is, we can be heard. Representative Town Meeting does not provide this range of opportunities.

    3. We will also see the emergence of actual functioning districts (aka, precincts, wards) with district leadership.

      Up to 50% of our volunteer legislators are missing any given night of Representative Town Meeting. The Agriculture Commission hasn’t met in almost a year, because it can’t muster a quorum. Maybe we have volunteer fatigue?

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