Citizen engagement is a persistent challenge for municipal governments. The Honorary Councilmember program offers a solution by giving interested citizens access to the inner workings of the city. Bob Schwartz, City Manager in Oxford, first introduced this idea in 1986 in Garden City and received an ICMA award for his innovation a year later. This case study presents the program as it has operated in Oxford from 2013 to the present.
How does the program work?
Councilmembers take turns nominating a resident each month. The nominees can be friends, political supporters, or people who the councilmember would like to get involved in the city. Honorary councilmembers are invited to work sessions as well as regular and special city council meetings. They receive all of the materials regular councilmembers rely on for meetings, including agendas, supporting memos and documentation, weekly updates, and other emails. In short, they are treated like regular councilmembers with the exception of being granted voting privileges.
Honorary councilmembers are also invited to lunch with the city manager and police chief and are given a tour of city facilities, which can be organized to focus on items on the council meeting agenda. At a minimum, the tour should include the city clerk’s office, the public works department, and the police department to familiarize the honorary councilmember with basic city services and personnel.
Finally, the honorary councilmembers attend the work session and regular council meeting where the mayor introduces and honors them with a proclamation.
What are the costs and benefits?
Besides taking the honorary councilmember out for lunch, the main costs of the program are time and effort. This investment can yield significant benefits for everyone involved. The honorary councilmember gains a better understanding of – and appreciation for – his or her local government. In the presence of a new person at the council table, regular councilmembers may have to explain their actions in greater detail and are exposed to new perspectives when making a decision. Other city officials and staff have the opportunity to show what they do on a daily basis to provide services while learning more about how their work is perceived by residents. In the long run, the program improves citizen engagement by turning participants into stake-holders and potential volunteers for city committees.
For more information, please contact Bob Schwartz
, City Manager, City of Oxford.