Romer: The importance of governance and special district boards

Great boards don’t just happen. They are developed and nourished. Great boards are essential to providing good governance and oversight not only of our towns and other levels of government, but of our special districts, non-government organizations and nonprofit community. These organizations cannot provide the service levels our community expects and needs without strong boards.

What exactly is good governance? The best example I can think of is John F. Kennedy when he stood before Congress on May 25, 1961, and proposed that the United States “should commit itself to achieve the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Not everyone was impressed; a Gallup Poll indicated that 58 percent of Americans were opposed.

While JFK was the chief executive and not a board member, he exhibited the traits necessary for exemplary board service: a basic understanding that the role of the board is to set vision and strategy, establish aspirational goals, provide resources and ensure proper governance.

It takes a partnership to advance the mission and goals of any organization, from a local special district to NASA under JFK. Working together the board and staff produce results for the community they represent. The board’s role is to govern. Its members make governance decisions that represent membership interests, as prescribed by corporate law. The board does not manage the daily aspects of the organization.

Good governing boards set the destination and the staff works to implement the most efficient ways to reach that destination. A board develops a strategic plan so committees and staff can advance the plan. The role of the staff is to manage. They best know the history, resources, and strengths of the organization to advance the mission and goals.

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Leaders should pay particular attention to the use of the word staff, especially if the profession is hierarchical and staff in the profession mean less than the professionals it represents. Given the partnership between elected or appointed board volunteers and staff professionals, one legal bar association has replaced the word staff with “internal team” to cast a spotlight on the importance of the partnership, clarifying that the staff team does not work directly for the elected leaders — rather they work in partnership.

Not all directors know the meaning of governance. Some join the board with experience in their own work settings — making administrative or tactical decisions each day. This is not governance. Too many boards are quick to fall to tactical and management discussions. This is evidenced in discussions that quickly tumble from strategic to tactical.

Strategy is characterized as long-term and visionary. Tactical discussions are lower level, usually the responsibility of committees or staff. Seldom are they appropriate at the board table. Bill Pawlucy, CAE, an international governance consultant based in South Carolina instructs: “The board has a fiduciary role to govern and it is responsible for advancing the strategic plan and the budget. These two documents serve as roadmaps. The board will decide the destination and the staff will manage the details.”

There are several upcoming special district elections, including Eagle County Health Service District (aka Paramedics) and Mountain Recreation (mail ballots), and Eagle River Water and Sanitation District (in-person voting or absentee ballot). I encourage everyone to do their research on candidates and to support those who follow JFK’s governance strategy and understand the importance of staying out of the weeds.

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