“Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, …
“Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, Foundations is taking a look at the role of a town board.
The business of running a town takes a significant amount of personal involvement. From town supervisors to tax clerks, from highway superintendents to town constables, the people involved in local government constantly make decisions that impact the place where they live, the community to which they most closely belong.
Few members of local government wear this personal involvement as openly as members of town boards.
A town board acts as the legislative authority for the town to which it belongs. It adopts budgets, appoints town officials and, generally, sets the policies that determine the direction of the town.
This work occurs at board meetings that are open to the public, giving the broader community of the town active involvement in the decisions that will affect its character.
That openness isn’t always fully utilized. According to Dr. Paul Salzberg, former member of the Cochecton Town Board, people often don’t realize what goes on at town board meetings, and there’s a sense of “let [the board members] do what they have to do.”
“People have to be more involved,” Dr. Salzberg says.
Encouraging and responding to that engagement is, in part, the role of a town board member.
“The people don’t work for us, we work for the people, we work for the community,” says Greg Triggs, recently elected member of the Tusten Town Board. Making sure that the community is engaged with the process of government is the least of what a board member can do.
Board members often have to make either-or decisions in the course of their duties, Triggs adds, and the results will not make everyone involved happy. Sometimes the concerns that people have aren’t ones the town board can meet.
But people need to feel they were heard as they leave the discussion about such issues, he says.
Engaging the community and making determinations at board meetings is only part of a board member’s responsibilities. Board members are responsible as well for engaging with all the different departments and organizations that make a town run.
“I think the most important thing to do when you get on the board is to be involved,” says Jane Luchsinger, a long-time member of the Tusten Town Board. “It’s more fulfilling if you play a significant part.”
Sometimes that involvement takes the form of regular committee attendance. Board members can serve on committees to update a town’s comprehensive plan. That’s a document, often over a hundred pages long, that outlines the direction in which a town wants to move. The plan also examines a town’s zoning laws, which determine what development can and can’t happen within the town and where. Those committees can meet as often as every two weeks, for hours at a time.
Such involvement can also take the form of acting as liaison to different town departments: to the town’s highway department, to its youth commission, to its historian and the like.
If a board member is getting fully involved, says Luchsinger, they’ll follow their assigned department closely, bringing any issues or needs that department has to the consideration of the full board.
Sometimes departments will run on their own without the need for close oversight from the board; those departments will have less demanding liaison requirements. But having board members engaged keeps the board—and, by extension, the public—involved and aware of each department’s activities.
Serving as a town board member can also involve a significant amount of training.
Since being elected to the board, Triggs has been learning a lot, he says; he’s been working to understand the town’s structure and to learn from the experience of those around him. He’s learning that “Nothing is ever as cut and dried as it feels when you’re an observer,” he says.
The New York State Association of Towns offers training for board members to supplement the experience that gets passed on from board to board, holding conferences and providing training videos on specific topics.
And even with training, it’s important for members to recognize their own limits, and to work with other government officials or consultants when an issue needs more specialized knowledge.
“Don’t think you can do it all,” says Luchsinger. “But find the right person who can do it.”
Members of the town board can get involved in more personal ways, too, advocating for causes that will better the town’s community.
When Dr. Salzberg was on the board, he advocated for having a park or a walking trail within the town. He was also the board’s liaison to the ambulance corps; he was its doctor, and he tried to bring issues related to the corps before the board.
Salzberg’s aim was “representing the interest of the people of my community,” he says.
For Luchsinger, her service on the town board was a natural outgrowth of work she’d done with local nonprofits; “I guess it was just love of community,” she says. Knowing what organizations were doing in the town made it easier to knit things together, to forge partnerships between them and the government.
While Triggs is new to government and to the opportunities for service it offers, it’s something he’s been interested in for a long time.
As a kid growing up in Madison, WI, Triggs had the chance to talk with a city alderman (Madison’s town-board equivalent), and to ask him about his responsibilities. “I have the best job in the world,” the alderman had said. “I get to make good things happen for our town.”
“What could be better than that?” asks Triggs.
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