Leadership roles in outside activities
Dorthea Farris and Steve Burkholder
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Being a local elected official can be an interesting adventure.
You don’t get to choose most issues you work on, community needs dictate that. You don’t get to choose when you work on most of those issues, circumstances force many of those timelines. And, perhaps most importantly, you don’t get to choose with whom you work, voters do that for you.
We’ve both experienced those challenges, one of us as a city council member and mayor and the other as a county commissioner and school board member. We’ve also served as the elected leaders of the Colorado Municipal League and Colorado Counties Inc., the umbrella organizations for county and municipal governments statewide.
Knowing the hard work and long hours demanded to represent constituents while at home and as representatives of the community to outside organizations and interests, we respect the dedication of local elected officials at all levels. That certainly includes all members of the Garfield County Board of Commissioners.
Your board is having an interesting discussion about how its three members should conduct themselves while fulfilling their leadership roles when their duties find them involved in outside activities. We don’t presume to tell Garfield County citizens or those they’ve elected how to resolve that dilemma. We can offer some observations about how we’ve seen other local governments rise to that challenge.
The question that arises time and time again is the one identified in Garfield County. When serving on outside boards, when testifying at the legislature or elsewhere, when participating in state and national discussions, should elected officials offer only an agreed upon opinion or should they be free to speak with their own individual voice?
One option is to offer only an opinion approved by the majority of the elected board. After all, isn’t that how decisions are made at a meeting of the City Council or the Board of County Commissioners? Most times, that’s not hard to do. While instances where council members or commissioners disagree often earn the headlines, the majority of issues are either technical in nature or present an obvious choice. More often than not those circumstances result in a unanimous decision.
But the fact remains that local officials have been selected by voters based upon their individual stands on issues important to their constituents, not as a slate of like-minded candidates. That intentionally creates a diverse board expected to occasionally differ but also expected to figure out how to work well together with the best interests of the entire community at heart.
It’s been our experience that most elected boards, whether on the Front Range or on the Western Slope, find a way to create the level of trust it takes to allow their members to fulfill their broad community responsibilities while remaining true to their individual conscience. This is the essence of representative government and how good public policies are created.
There are practical as well as philosophical reasons for allowing this flexibility. A major consideration is that many of those outside boards and commissions a local elected official may be called to serve on meet infrequently. Opportunities to offer opinions in other settings can come up quickly or unexpectedly. In either case, delays caused by the necessity of polling other members of a council of board of commissioners would significantly hamper the ability to respond to outside duties and opportunities.
The solution often involves a policy, written or unspoken, that says individual elected officials should always let it be known whether they are speaking for their entire board or as one member of that board offering his or her own opinion. The concurrent expectation is that they should keep their fellow local board members informed about their activities and decisions when their official roles find them representing their community in other than their own internal meetings.
This could be a model for a common sense solution that will resolve the current discussion among members of the Garfield County Board of Commissioners and the community at large.
Dorothea Farris is former Pitkin County Commissioner and past president of Colorado Counties Inc.
Steve Burkholder is the former mayor of Lakewood and past president of the Colorado Municipal League
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