volunteering for city government

Until my mother served on the Redmond Arts Commission (RAC), it never occurred to me that you could volunteer to serve as part of your city government.  But if you have a passion for any of a number of topics such as arts, parks, bicycling or walking, disability access, or local youth, you can have a large impact on local decisions in that area by doing just that.

Many cities, like Redmond, WA, have a number of existing commissions and advisory boards or committees.  These groups advise the elected city officials, but they also often have some autonomy and an independent budget.  For instance, the RAC sponsors and promotes local arts events, buys art for display in the city, creates online and print materials to inform the community about local art, and advises the city on arts education and other topics.  While my mother was a member of the RAC, their biggest accomplishments included creating and implementing a visual arts curriculum for the local school district (the schools offered no such instruction previously), and working with the Parks Department to create a small park and firefighter statue outside the Redmond Fire Department.  My mother reports that the RAC had nearly complete autonomy to make art decisions for the city as long as they stayed within their budget.

The application process to become a commissioner/board member and the term length vary by city.  In many cities, you can fill out an application form found online.  You may then be interviewed by current commissioners, members of other commissions that you will be working with, other city officials, and/or the mayor.  If you are a good fit (often meaning that your skills or background are sufficiently different from those of the current members), they will appoint you to serve a term (e.g., 6 years, for the RAC).

Before applying, cities recommend that you attend at least one meeting of the group that you want to serve on and read minutes of previous meetings.  Also, talk to current or past commissioners about their duties and the time commitment involved.  The city of Seattle indicates that board service requires an average of 10-15 hours a month.

If you are interested in advising the city on a topic for which there is currently no board or commission, you may be able to create an advisory group.  My mother reports:

When some citizens in Sammamish [a city neighboring Redmond]…wanted an Arts Commission, they went to their council and asked about establishing one. The council asked that citizens form an Arts Task Force to study the matter and make a recommendation. The task force’s recommendation was accepted and Sammamish started an Arts Commission.

Check out your city’s website and look at the list of boards and commissions if you’re thinking about getting involved.  If you want to make a difference that you can see in your daily life, volunteering at the city level is a great way to do it.

Note: Thanks to my mom, Jill Schmidt, for all the useful information that went into this post.  :)

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