Civics 101: How to get involved in local government

GET INVOLVED: Both the City of Asheville and Buncombe County have vacancies on several boards and commissions. Photo by Virginia Daffron

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to learn more about local government and how you can help steer the ship, both the City of Asheville and Buncombe County welcome your interest.

Local officials suggest first watching or attending public meetings to better understand how sessions work. Individuals should then apply to be a member of a board or commission. Whether you are looking to discuss environmental concerns, oversee new development or address critical community needs, there is a board for that.

Along with local officials, Xpress also spoke with current and former board and commission members to learn why they got involved and how their participation has made a difference for themselves and the community.

City of Asheville 

The City of Asheville has more than 30 boards and commissions that advise City Council and staff on how the city should function. Residents get to provide input on the policies that shape many aspects of city government. The positions aren’t paid, but members say it’s very rewarding work.

“Serving on a commission offers residents the opportunity to have a voice in the city’s future and growth,” says Jerri Goldberg, assistant city clerk. “It provides insight into the workings of local government in a way that may not be understood by many and it provides an opportunity to meet and engage with people.

“In addition, there may be a question of whether boards and commissions make a difference,” Goldberg says. “If not for the work of the Urban Forestry Commission, the city may never have brought in an urban forester.”

Jeff Santiago, local songwriter and operations manager of The Orange Peel, is a member of the city’s Noise Advisory Board and says service has been an “eye-opening” experience.

“I originally got involved with [the Noise Advisory Board] after a pretty controversial noise ordinance was passed in 2021,” says Santiago. “Serving on the board has given me a ton of insight into how the city functions on a day-to-day basis and has given me the opportunity to stand up for musicians who may or may not make their living off their work.”

Santiago says he would encourage anyone who wants to make an impact on the community to apply.

“The only way to make change is to be the change we want to see,” says Santiago. “Volunteering to be on a board is one of the easiest ways to get involved with the city.”

There are vacancies on six city panels: the Audit Committee, the Board of Adjustment, the Human Relations Commission, the Neighborhood Advisory Committee, the Noise Advisory Board and the Active Transportation Committee. Goldberg says that the city has challenges filling vacant seats.

“Some openings require special skills, certifications or group affiliations. For example, we are looking for a CPA for the Audit Committee and someone representing the restaurant industry for the Noise Advisory Board,” Goldberg says.

“In-person meetings are also a barrier for some, whether it be for health reasons, babysitting, transportation or other issues. However, the city has committed and begun the process of integrating [options for virtual attendance] to help alleviate these issues,” Goldberg continues.

Board and commission meetings are public, so potential applicants are strongly encouraged to attend or watch meetings before applying. If you’re interested, complete an application on the city’s website.

Once an application is received, the city holds your file for consideration for one year. If you are not appointed within a year, you will need to resubmit an application for further consideration. All appointments are made by City Council.

The application deadline is 5 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 25. Council will make final decisions regarding applicants at its April 9 meeting. City residents are given preference, however Council may appoint a nonresident to some hard-to-fill seats or seats requiring certifications.

For those who don’t have the time to serve as a commission or board member, Goldberg encourages people to attend meetings or join a subcommittee.

“Time is a commitment that not everyone has the privilege of being able to give,” Goldberg says. “However, people may still get involved with less of a time commitment when there are work groups and subcommittees established. People also can be put on an email list for any board by reaching out to the staff liaison to get updates with meeting schedules and materials.”

Buncombe County

Buncombe County has 48 volunteer-led boards and commissions. Any county resident can apply.

“Serving on a board or commission is a great way to make a difference in our community, make sure your voice is heard, experience and engage with governmental processes, grow your professional network and improve leadership skills,” says Stacey Woody, deputy clerk to the board.

Martin Moore, a Buncombe County commissioner, says he served on the county’s Board of Adjustment before running for the Board of Commissioners.

“I think my time serving on the Board of Adjustment helped me to further understand the dynamics of how the county functions,” Moore says. “If someone is looking for a way to be involved in the county or if they are thinking about running for office sometime in the future, I would highly encourage them to join a board or commission. It’s a great way to get your feet wet.”

For some residents, such as Claire Thomas, a Weaverville resident and member of the Historic Resources Commission, serving on a board allows them to stand up for community issues they are passionate about.

“I joined the Historic Resources Commission because I have a deep appreciation for history and I wanted to do everything I could to preserve our county,” says Thomas. “The historical look and feel of our area is one of the things that makes us unique and appealing.”

Buncombe County has openings on 13 boards and commissions. Except for the Board of Equalization and Review, which has an application deadline of Friday, Feb. 2, all vacancies will remain open until filled. Interested applicants must reside within county limits and fill out an application, which can be found on the Buncombe County website. Paper applications are available by request.

Woody says the county also has had difficulty filling vacant seats.

“Some barriers to joining include some state-mandated training, such as for the Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee and the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee,” Woody says. “We also hear from many residents that they are busy and it is hard to make the time commitment. There may also be issues with child care, transportation, meeting time and possible language barriers. However, we are committed to increasing representation on boards and commissions.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

3 thoughts on “Civics 101: How to get involved in local government

  1. indy499

    Chase, can’t imagine why anyone would waste their time. The council creates boards, gives them no authority, funds them for appearance sake and piles their studies (generally prepared by expensive consultants hired by the committees) by decades of other useless studies and recommendations.

  2. Bright

    In case the city “council” hasn’t noticed, people have given up on them because they’ve proven to be a waste of time. We are working on other solutions

  3. Zodwa

    I would never waste hours and house of time on another one of these Boards. Council has their own agenda and it does not include citizens. City staff waste so much time working on preparing for these many many meetings, and sometimes you barely have a quorum. The ones that have some authority are well attended and can be effective, but the number of Boards should be reduced.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.