Salt Lake City residents are eager participants in their local government.

According to Robyn Stanczyk, of the Deputy Mayor’s Office, Salt Lake City has approximately 30 boards and commissions, with close to 300 members. “The majority of boards are advisory in nature, and a few hear appeals, provide review and oversight, and determine policy,” she says.

By contrast, the Aspen Times ran an article earlier this year that discussed the growing difficulty in getting Aspen residents to serve on local boards.

Apparently, Aspen’s biggest obstacles have included residents moving out of town, volunteers getting elected or appointed to higher offices, and hectic schedules that leave little or no time for additional activities.

In addition, many Aspen residents who had served on citizen boards in the past “complained that it wasn’t worth their time to serve because their recommendations to City Council on development proposals and other city issues have been ignored,” according to the article.

Salt Lake’s Stanczyk agrees that feeling heard is key to continued participation.

“High turnover seems to occur most frequently on boards that are not well supported by the city department responsible for overseeing the board, and on boards whose members do not feel they are being heard by the administration or having an impact on city issues,” she says.

Auburn, Washington also enjoys a high level of citizen participation. Mayor Pete Lewis says that the city – a city with approximately 40,000 residents – has had a surge in participation in committees and groups, “but it is a process.”

He attributes the increase in citizen involvement to a concerted effort on his part to talk with – and listen to – residents and their concerns. “About six years ago, I began meeting with neighborhood groups, block watches, homeowners’ associations, and even single blocks or cul de sacs.”

To let these groups know that their concerns were being taken seriously, Mayor Lewis brought along other city representatives – the city attorney, police chief, city engineer, etc.

“After introducing everyone and inviting residents to share their concerns, I’d tell them we’d work on it and get back to them. Then we would. That really started it off.”

The recurring theme among all cities that successfully involve citizens in the government process is that citizens feel heard.

In cities of all sizes, participation in local government can take the form of serving on a committee, board or commission, attending town hall meetings, or simply providing input, feedback or ideas to administration.

In Berkeley, California, involvement on its 36 citizen boards and commissions levels has been fairly constant over the past several years, according to Mark Numainville, Assistant City Clerk. Because of the activist and participatory nature of its population, he says, the city has not needed to do a great deal of outreach to recruit commissioners.

Certainly, in any local government, important decision-making commissions (such as planning boards, for example), still require the screening of candidates to make sure that the group has balanced views and not just citizens that might be focused on one specific issue.

Berkeley employs one strategy to ensure such balance: Each council member appoints a representative to each commission.

And the experience appears to be a positive one for most. “A great many of the commissioners have a favorable view of their service, and many of them serve for several years. Some of the meetings may get fairly contentious, but we have not had many commissioners relay negative feedback about their overall experience.”

In this case, contentious can be good – especially if it means feeling heard by your local government!

Strategies for Encouraging Citizen Participation

In general, Salt Lake City has a high rate of volunteerism by its local population, according to Robyn Stanczyk. In addition, the city employs a variety of strategies to encourage citizen participation in local government.

To recruit participation among ethnic minority segment of the population, for example, the Mayor’s Minority Affairs Coordinator will contact her network of sources from local churches, universities, business and volunteer organizations, specifically asking for names of potential candidates to serve on citizen committees.

Other recruiting strategies include notices in water bills, and announcements and flyers at Community Council meetings, local business/job fairs, and other events and festivals. Outgoing board members often recommend candidates for their replacement, and in cases that all for a specific area of expertise, the city will contact local firms or associations in search of applicants, says Stanczyk.