Don’t get chummy

© Can Stock Photo/suricoma

City councilmembers and nonprofit board leaders should not get chummy—too familiar—with their constituents or regular members. Here’s why.

Local government leaders should not get chummy

At a meeting of a public governing body or advisory council, it is essential to convey the message that the body serves the public. At the same time, it is the governing body itself that makes the decisions. The public does not make the decisions. We have a representative system of government. The electorate chooses the officials, and then they have the duty of resolving the challenging issues facing our communities.

When the leader of a local government gets chummy with the public, it blurs the lines of authority. Making a big fuss about the public, noting their attendance in the record by name, or speaking to them off the cuff during the meeting can make them feel that they are participants, which is not the case. The public PROVIDES INPUT to the decision-makers, but does not PARTICIPATE in the decision-making.

To this end, most local governments designate a time on the agenda for public comment. This is a critical part of your meeting. Once that session is over, that should be the end of public comment. (Read our suggestions on holding public comment sessions here.)

Nonprofit board leaders should not get chummy

I’ve seen this same thing happen at nonprofit board meetings. Unless the law or bylaws state otherwise, boards of nonprofit organizations may meet privately, without their regular organizational members in attendance. We recommend that board meetings be open to regular members to observe (except for those rare situations where an executive—closed—session is necessary).

However, the regular members should not sit at the same table as the board members. There should be a period for member input, and aside from that time, the board should not solicit comments from the regular members or engage in discussion with them.

Undue familiarity is a mistake

When we have the honor and burden of governing our fellow human beings, we need to always remember that this does not make us any better than they are. Any attitude of unconscious superiority is wrong. In our common humanity, we are all equal.

However, we also need to remember who is responsible for what. We serve the public and our nonprofit regular members best when we welcome them, listen to them, strive to understand their views—and project the authority that goes with being the governing body and making the decisions.


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Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.


  1. Lynda Ramsey Schram on November 28, 2018 at 2:21 pm

    Oh thank you. As chair, it seems so mean to tell your regular members that they may not sit at the board table with the board members. It is so nice to see this article backing this concept up.

    • Ann Macfarlane on November 28, 2018 at 2:23 pm

      Glad it’s useful, Lynda! Thanks for writing.

  2. Cameron Morehouse on November 28, 2018 at 11:07 pm

    As a council member, I served on a non-profit board for one year and felt very uncomfortable, as the city funded the non-profit. We are a small community. Also, the Chamber Director ran for a council position and served four years, and remained, director. Currently, we have a council member drawing a significant salary as Historic Downtown Chelan director and serving on the City council. What comments do you have about these relationships?

    • Ann Macfarlane on November 30, 2018 at 10:49 am

      Cameron, we provide parliamentary advice and guidance, and these are legal issues. What does your city attorney say about potential conflict of interest? It is a complicated subject.

      With regard to your first point, I can mention that the Association of Washington Hospital Districts, in its Commissioner Guide, references Chapter 42.23 RCW which prohibits municipal officers being from “beneficially interested” in a contract. It states that one recent court of appeals decision limited the statute’s application to municipal officers with a financial interest in a contract. Serving as unpaid members of the board of directors of a nonprofit organization while serving on the city council, and voting to approve a contract between the nonprofit and the city, was allowable.

      With regard to your second and third points, again, it will be a matter for legal counsel. Thanks for writing and good luck!