Productive city boards and commissions can provide insights and energy essential for creating better communities. They help make important decisions, bring expertise and resources needed to address problems and provide a valuable link between the public and elected officials. In addition, boards and commissions can also provide training for new leaders who someday might serve on the city council or in other elected roles.
Creation and Authority
A city can have an unlimited number of boards. Code of Iowa Chapter 392 regulates how a city creates a board or commission. A city council must adopt an ordinance that clearly defines the following items for every board and commission:
- Powers and duties
- Member appointment and removal process
- Member terms and qualifications
- Whether the board is advisory or administrative
- Meetings and, if applicable, compensation
The ordinance should also provide for a board or commission to establish a set of administrative rules and procedures for carrying out its business.
Cities are only required to have certain types of boards if they take on certain functions. For example, if a city has a zoning ordinance it must establish a Planning and Zoning Commission and a Zoning Board of Adjustment under Code Section 414.6 and 414.7. If a city has a library, it may establish a library board, which is regulated to a certain degree by Section 392.5.
Deciding When a Board or Commission is Needed
City officials need to review whether a board or commission would provide assistance with a particular policy or program. The following are examples for when a board or commission might be particularly helpful in solving city problems:
- The issue needs more study than is feasible in council meetings
- There is not an obvious solution and additional research is necessary
- There are conflicting groups or interests and complex negotiation is needed
- There are issues the council is not aware of
Before establishing a board or commission city officials should consider whether it will help provide oversight or resolve issues. Cities should refrain from establishing a board if the matter is better suited for the city council to take action on, if there is not adequate time or resources to handle the task and if no clear solution or directive can be made.
Successful Boards and Commissions
City councils should clearly define the role of any board or commission they establish. This will result in fewer conflicts when contentious issues are referred to boards for further deliberation. Boards should be given significant ownership of issues while at the same time realizing their power does not go unchecked.
It is important that board members receive proper training before beginning their term. New and veteran members should be given an orientation which includes rules of procedures, a discussion on issues previously addressed by the board and an overview of potential issues on the horizon. This will allow board members to hit the ground running and highlight the importance of the panel in the overall policy-making process.
While generally less formal than a council meeting, some rules of procedure should be adopted by the board to allow for an orderly discussion of issues and allow for an accurate record of what transpired. Boards and commissions created by a city council are considered governmental bodies and must follow the open meetings laws found in Code of Iowa Chapter 21. Therefore, public notice of any meeting must be given. This notice must be issued 24 hours prior to the start of the meeting, unless the meeting is a hearing when longer advance notice applies depending on the type of hearing. Council members who attend meetings of advisory boards and commissions should be careful to avoid an open meetings violation of the council if a quorum (or majority) of the council is in attendance and involved in deliberating on issues likely to come before the council. It is also important to note that the documents produced by boards and commissions are subject to the open records provisions included in Code Chapter 22.
All city-appointed boards, commissions, committees and councils are required to be gender balanced. Gender balance means if the body has an even number of appointees, it must be evenly made up of men and women. For example, three women and three men must serve on a six member board. If the body has an odd number of appointees, it must be “one half plus one” of either gender. For instance, if there are five members, three could be men and the other two women, or vice versa.
However, state law does allow a city to have an unbalanced board if they have made a good faith effort to achieve gender balance by attempting to find a qualified person of the necessary gender for a period of three months. Making a chart of existing boards and upcoming vacancies, and/or keeping track of current appointments and necessary recruiting periods would be a good start to ensuring your city is tracking gender balance.