The rapid transition to virtual meetings in 2020 required bridging the technological gap that emerged between what was mandated by state and local regulations, and how school and municipal board meetings are typically run. For clerks, this meant they had to learn to facilitate a new software platform, and then they had to help the administration and board get comfortable with virtual meetings.
There was some advantage for organizations that had already implemented online governance platforms, as they only had to learn the virtual meeting software. This was still a lot to take on in a public meeting while ensuring that Open Meeting laws were adhered to and all official actions were captured for accurate minutes.
The Role of the Clerk in Orienting New Board or Council Members
For many organizations, just as they were settling into this new routine, and just as elected officials were getting comfortable being on camera in virtual meetings while juggling agenda materials, elections brought new members who need to be onboarded. In normal circumstances, new member orientation is a crucial step; in a virtual world, it takes on even more significance.
In a recent keynote at Diligent’s Modern Governance Summit, Dr. Romules Durant, Superintendent of Toledo, Ohio, Public Schools, commented that many people say the reason they do not run for the board is their discomfort with the processes. His response? That’s why the clerk is there – to provide comfort with the process and to make new members look good. For clerks, new member orientation is the perfect time to connect with the newly elected members and create a safe space for them to ask questions or come back for help.
What Should Virtual New Member Orientation Cover?
A typical new member orientation covers concepts like organizational norms and culture, legal requirements of public boards and councils, as well as data and information specific to your organization. Virtual orientations are similar but take on an added layer of information. The rules regarding virtual meetings encompass typical restrictions of Sunshine Laws, but they have been expanded with online meetings.
While these rules allow more flexibility than prior to the pandemic in terms of board members attending remotely, they also come with added constraints regarding visibility and electronic communication, as well as the need to balance concurrent software platforms when some members struggle to feel comfortable in one. New members are typically eager to begin and motivated to learn. Organizations should seize the opportunity to create a positive experience that brings new board members onto the team as allies.
New member orientation should meet these three goals:
- Make the new member feel welcome: Reinforce the excitement that the new member has after being elected.
- Develop positive perceptions about the organization: Include key personnel in the process.
- Put the new member at ease: Making the new board member comfortable in the surroundings allows training to be focused on learning governance issues.
In addition to providing information, it is recommended that you put documents in an “orientation kit” where they are easily accessible. This might include boundary or facility maps, an organizational chart, a glossary of terms and acronyms, instructions for accessing email if the organization provides that, and a calendar of events. This would also be a good time to have new members sign any conflict-of-interest statements required by law; these can be posted in your board portal library or document center. Using a secure, web-based platform, all materials can be put in one location. That includes any that have confidential information for the board, such as security reports, which can still be easily housed and searched, but be available only to board or council members.
Technology offers new options for delivering orientation programs, and with the pandemic still impacting closures and social distancing, virtual orientation may very well be the only option. Additionally, orienting a new member into a virtual environment requires a degree of technological proficiency. Remember that a new member may be using virtual meeting tools every day, or they may have only used them a couple of times during the pandemic for a remote reunion or a family event.
Regardless, there are rules to observe in order to comply with Open Meetings laws. It is imperative that each organization consults its own attorney about what provisions of state Open Meeting laws have been suspended and what modifications must be made. Assuming this has already been completed, preparing new board members is the next step.
Here’s how to prepare them to use the technology:
- Whatever software you are using, make sure the new member has downloaded the actual program.
- Set up a meeting so that the new member gets used to using the software.
- Ensure all elected members have their own account in the program. It should be registered to them, and they should make sure the name that displays during the meeting includes their full first and last name.
- Learn where the microphone is on the board member’s computer or tablet. Participants should be instructed to speak loudly and clearly into it.
- Similarly, locate the mute button. Members should learn to stay muted when not speaking.
- Discourage use of the chat box. All records created during a meeting are subject to Open Records laws. Chat boxes are not the way to engage community members during a public meeting.
- Encourage the deliberating members to get to the meeting early so they can be logged in prior to the meeting.
- Ask elected officials to identify themselves by name when making or seconding motions so that the minutes are correct.
- It is best to keep cameras on (some state regulations require it for participation in a public meeting). Horizontal orientation of a phone or tablet will ensure the picture fills the space.
Open Meeting laws and confidential information create their own issues when members are participating in virtual meetings from their homes. If the meeting goes into closed executive session, each elected official needs to be in a room where they can have complete privacy. No one in their location should be able to hear or interrupt during executive session. Typically, an executive session is conducted via a separate meeting link. The new member needs instruction, and possibly training, on leaving the open meeting, entering the executive session, then reentering the open meeting when the executive session is complete. Equally important to having a secure setting is having a secure platform to examine materials and read confidential executive session minutes. A web-based application like BoardDocs ensures that even on shared family computer, material remains confidential.
Because public meetings are exactly that – public – they come with pressure for the elected members to appear proficient. Some of this pressure is self-imposed, but they feel it nonetheless. For newly elected members, the pressure may feel even greater as they deal with so much new information. This is the time to engage with new members; it is critically important that they begin to acclimate to the governance culture. We will one day move back to in-person meetings and orientations; until then we can apply the lessons learned thus far to create a positive and productive experience to welcome new members on the board.