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Local Government Boards & Commission: Effectively Engaging the Public

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joseph G. Jarret
April 21, 2023


There exists a body of robust research that suggests that public trust at all levels of government continues to be on the decline. Needless to say, the pandemic exacerbated this pre-existing phenomenon, primarily due to an inability of many governmental entities to engage in in-person interactions with the citizenry they serve. People, many of whom belong to marginalized groups, felt even more alienated from government, leading to strained relationships that were tenuous at best to begin with. The tension between the general public and local government can most readily be observed in the interaction between citizens and public boards and commissions. Elected and appointed board members are quick to bring light to what they perceive to be a growing lack of civility and outright hostility they’re experiencing at the hands of irate, intractable citizens. Reports of citizens being ejected from public meetings for disrupting are commonplace. On the other hand, so are assertions made by citizens that board members have become increasingly dismissive, disinterested, rude and contemptuous of them, and unfair or inconsistent in their rulings. This enmity between citizens and public servants continues to plague and impede the local governmental process. However, rather than view this pressing issue wholly through the lens of board members, it might be helpful to see it through the eyes of the citizens who present themselves—willingly or compulsorily—before public boards and commissions.

Board Member Behavior

Professional, appropriate behavior by board members, whether elected or appointed, can be defined as operating in accord with the board’s roles and responsibilities. Thus, board members should know the difference between their duties and responsibilities, and those of other boards. This may sound like commonsense, however, I have served as legal counsel to several local government boards in several states, and I have witnessed board members attempt to regulate behavior, or involve themselves in issues beyond the scope of their particular board’s power and authority. For instance, I’ve witnessed code enforcement board members attempt to insinuate themselves in issues reserved for the zoning board of appeals. I’ve likewise observed city council members attempt to involve themselves in the affairs of a school board that was managed by a separately elected body politic. To be fair, however, I have witnessed local boards and commissions that kept to the business properly before them while treating citizens with the utmost professionalism and courtesies, despite the observations presented below.

An Adversarial System                                                                                                          

Whether or not the original intent of a local board or commission was to be in conflict with the citizens that appear before them, nevertheless many such forums have become adversarial systems pitting citizen against appointed or elected board or commission. As a public sector lawyer, I spent years in the courtroom as part of an adversarial system that essentially had three basic features. The first was the presence of a neutral decision-maker such as a judge or jury. The second was the presentation of evidence in support of each party’s case, usually by lawyers, (unless one of the parties acted as their own attorney), and third, that the system in which I was practicing was a highly structured one. The same cannot be said about the manner in which many local government boards and commissions conduct themselves. While they may be adversarial, they are often not very structured. Often, they create their own rules of procedure, and, when convenient, amend or suspend those rules depending upon the issue or person(s) before them.

Bridging the Gap

So, how do we bridge the gap between citizen and public servant? To begin we have to ensure that, despite the fact that a board or commission is empowered to issue sanctions, it nevertheless must treat citizens with respect. Respect is basic, but it doesn’t always exist. I’ve seen many boards whose members were antagonistic towards staff members whose job it was to support and advise the board, as well as citizens who appeared before the board. Such behavior is distracting and counterproductive, and merely serves to widen the gap between the public and the community. Citizens must feel confident that their grievances are heard and considered, regardless of whether they get the results they seek. A wise criminal court judge once told me, right after sentencing someone to a lengthy prison term, “I’m duty bound to take away their liberty, but that doesn’t mean I have to take away their dignity.” By professionally, properly and patiently engaging citizens who either feel they’ve been aggrieved by government, or who are called to task by government, a bridging of the divide that so often exists between local governments and the communities they serve can occur. Some of the more successful boards I have encountered over the years not only made a concerted effort to put citizens at ease, but went as far as offering informational meetings to explain the process and procedures the board followed. These board members view their service as a responsibility of citizenship, recognize the benefits of community engagement and find enjoyment in such service. This sense of community service can ultimately inure to the benefit of all citizens.


Community engagement is more of a framework than a model, and is based on principles that respect the right of all community members to be informed, consulted, involved and empowered. Beyond respect, community engagement employs a range of tools and strategies to ensure success. In practice, community engagement is a blend of science and art. The science comes from sociology, public policy, political science, cultural anthropology, organizational development, psychology, social psychology and other disciplines. The art comes from organizing concepts drawn from the literature on community participation, community development, constituency building and community psychology (CDC, 2017). Finally, it comes from good old commonsense and common courtesy. It’s time our elected and appointed boards and commissions strive to engage the citizens they serve, especially when those citizens appear before them, regardless of reason.

Author: Dr. Joseph G. Jarret, Ph.D., is a public sector manager, attorney, and mediator who has served four different governmental entities as chief legal counsel in Florida and Tennessee. A former United States Army Armored Cavalry Office with service overseas, and public risk manager, he lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science, and the Education Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the past-president of the East Tennessee Chapter of ASPA

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