Can software help fill board and commission seats?

April 4, 2019

Funds for software aimed at getting broader perspectives on Rochester’s volunteer boards and commissions were approved Monday.

The $7,800 taken from the city’s 2019 contingency fund would cover the first year of a three-year contract. Future payments — $8,346 and $8,930 — would be part of the 2020 and 2021 budgets.

The Rochester City Council unanimously approved the funds requested by Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, who is charged with recommending members for most city boards and commissions.

“I’m just supportive of anything that’s going to get our boards and commissions appointment process where it needs to be, because it’s not OK right now,” Council Member Michael Wojcik said.

Norton said she had hoped to get the software, also used by the city of Duluth, in place earlier.

“We have a bunch of openings right now,” she said during a forum last week. “We’re trying to push that information out all over the community to reach as many different populations and groups as we can so people can know about them and apply.”

Fifteen openings across eight boards and commissions were posted last month. In all, the city coordinates 21 volunteer boards and commissions with more than 160 volunteers.

Norton said 43 people inquired about the current openings, but only 16 applications have been received, so she’s extending the deadline to April 8.

The current process involves filling out a paper application obtained through the mayor’s office.

The paper application and planned software program will replace a process adopted by former Mayor Ardell Brede in 2016.

At the time, criticism over the lack of diversity on boards and commissions led Brede to develop a new process, which sought to recruit a broader pool of candidates, as well as provide for the potential “blind scoring” of applicants.

The plan used the software the city uses for posting job openings and reviewing applications for paid employment, which caused some confusion for people seeking unpaid positions on boards and commissions.

Norton said she hopes having a separate program, to be integrated with the city’s website, will reduce confusion and help market open positions to more people in the city.

While it won’t automatically spur more diverse applicants, the mayor said she’s hoping it will provide an opportunity to reach more residents and parts of the community that haven’t been active in the past. To do that, she said calls for new volunteers will go out to organizations with diverse connections throughout the city.

Norton touted the need for more diverse input during her election campaign last year, and she restated the need last week when discussing the importance of having wide-ranging input on the city’s boards and commissions.

“Those committees and commissions are meant to help the city, to help the city council, to the mayor, to help the administration do their jobs,” she said. “If they aren’t working well, then they are not being helpful to the city.”

In addition to helping advertise openings, the new software will provide options to customize organization of meeting notices and development of rosters of volunteer board members.

Norton said it’s part of an ongoing process designed to improve the benefits the board and commissions provide, while also helping community members become more involved in local government.

“We are also going to put together a board training for all the committees and commissions to help them learn to run a meeting, understand the laws and responsibilities and understand the open meeting law applies to them,” she said.

With the $7,800 secured, the City Council will be asked to approve the software contract in two weeks, with the hope of having it installed by the end of the month.