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.