Serving as a municipal board member is a mutually rewarding experience. It’s an opportunity for board members to be a part of improving lives within their communities and to truly effect change. Municipal board service can also be personally rewarding. Consider it an opportunity for personal growth and to be mentored by other community professionals. New board members can expect there to be something of a learning curve as they get their feet wet as municipal servants.

Making a smooth transition onto a municipal board requires helping a new board member to understand their responsibilities and duties, their unique role on the board, and the general work of the board. From there, it’s really an exercise in following through with the actions that the law requires and that the public expects in its board.

Helping New Board Members Understand the Board’s Work

An important step that can smooth the transition into municipal board meetings is one that’s often overlooked. Citizens who are interested in board service should attend as many board meetings as possible before joining the board. This gives them a ground-floor opportunity to see the current board in action. It will also provide a little history for the current issues the board is facing. Hearing opposing opinions at board meetings will give new board members clues as to how current board members are inclined to vote.

There Is Value in a Thorough Orientation

A thorough orientation covers a lot of ground. It’s one of the most important activities for smoothly transitioning someone into board service. Good orientations involve reviewing what’s expected of board members inside and outside of board meetings and preparing them well to deal with responses to their actions and decisions.

A seasoned board member should be responsible for orienting new board members. The orientation should present a brief overview of the new board member’s role. Encourage the new board member to take the time to read the handbook, bylaws, board calendar and all other information as soon as possible after the orientation. They should also learn more about the key processes and cycles of the board.

Mentors or current board members should inform new board members not only about what they can do, but about what they can’t do. New board members should understand what constitutes a conflict of interest and how to handle it if it occurs.

It will take some time to digest all they need to know, so it’s a good idea to schedule a time to follow up later and see if they have any questions.

The orientation is a good time to review the new board member’s strengths and abilities. They should know that the board, municipal workers and the public expect them to develop their board skills. This is a good time to generate an initial discussion about areas that the new board member would like more training on and to find opportunities for workshops or classes to meet their needs.

It’s helpful for new board members to get better acquainted with the various municipal departments and department heads. If possible, take a day and make the rounds of onsite visits to various municipal departments. Municipal workers will appreciate the investment that new leaders make in learning about their work.

Another step that board members often miss is encouraging new board members to develop relationships with fellow board members as early as possible. Encourage current board members to schedule an informal meeting over coffee or lunch in order to get better acquainted and to move past any awkwardness before the first meeting.

Preparing New Members for the First Meeting

Many new board members find it helpful for a current member to give them some bits of advice about how to handle their very first board meeting. Remind them that they were chosen because of their opinions and stances on community matters. It makes a good first impression to spend the bulk of the first meeting by actively listening. It’s usually prudent for new members to ask a few pertinent questions and to engage in discussions slowly.

New board members should be aware that their new position requires a hefty time commitment outside board meetings as well. Be honest about the amount of time that it takes to be truly prepared for board meetings. They’ll need to take the time to read through all reports, review the agenda and conduct any necessary research before the start of meetings.

Make sure that the board chair formally welcomes the new member to the board at their first meeting and introduces them to the public.

After the first meeting, it’s helpful for peers to acknowledge a new board member’s participation in their first meeting and to offer a bit of constructive feedback. Acknowledge their contributions, ask if they have any questions and offer to be a sounding board for them in the future.

Encouraging New Board Members in Their Roles on the Board

Provide all board members with a copy of their job description, along with a description of their new duties and responsibilities. Provide an explanation of fiduciary duties if they’re not familiar with them.

Offer a copy of the board’s previous board papers and minutes for the last year so they can get up to speed quickly on current issues. This step helps to prevent the new member from bringing up issues about things the board has already hashed out at length.

Communities expect municipal board members to evaluate all sides of an issue before casting their votes. New board members who demonstrate that they’re willing to devote extra time to doing research will earn the respect of the public and their peers. Being well versed on the issues will help them to respond to challenges and disagreements on their positions.

Interacting Successfully With the Public

Being a municipal board member requires having good social skills. The role often requires making controversial and unpopular decisions. They need to know that people within the community will scrutinize their actions and decisions, and may approach them with complaints or questions about board issues during chance meetings within the community.

New board members should learn very early on which types of information the general public is allowed to have and how to instruct them on how to find public documents.

Municipal board members should continually be aware that they are representatives of their communities. They can smooth their own paths by committing to the qualities that most people admire in leaders and public servants, including kindness, fairness, tenacity, independence and careful judgment. The most respected board members strive to live a life that is above reproach.

The Value of a Board Portal for New Board Members

Municipal governments that are already using a board portal will find that it’s a tool that helps new board members get acquainted with their responsibilities early in their board service. Mastering the board portal and using it faithfully offers new board members adequate time to focus on the important matters at hand.

What if your board isn’t currently using a board portal? Perhaps the biggest impact you can make as a rookie board member is to offer a proposal for using a board portal that’s designed specifically for municipal governments that will help them to save valuable time and tens of thousands of dollars at the same time. The representatives at iCompass, a Diligent brand, will be happy to work with you to show you how our solutions can streamline your board meetings in the most efficient, cost-effective ways. Researching the benefits of implementing a board portal may just be the first of many valuable board decisions to come.