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:
- Provide support for individuals interested in being involved in local government;
- Devise and implement strategies to enhance public engagement;
- Conduct community outreach efforts to increase participation by underrepresented residents in Town government; and
- 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.
See my post expanding on this issue here.