The League of Women Voters Observer Corps
If you are looking for a way to become involved in local government, consider the possibility of participation in The League of Women Voters Observer Corps in the Copper Country. The National League has published a booklet that describes the work of this group, lwvef_observingyourgovernment.pdf. It says “Protecting our right to know is integral to the health of our democracy. Decisions that determine how our schools will be run, at what level community safety programs will be funded, and how land in our towns will be used to impact our lives are vital to our well-being. These kinds of decisions need to be made with public input and oversight. One important way to ensure that is to observe government meetings. The League has been a champion of government transparency since our founding in 1920. It is one of our core principles and a vital part of our mission. Our efforts in this area reinforce our reputation of fairness, nonpartisanship, and trust. League members attend governmental meetings to learn what their government is doing and to monitor whether those meetings are conducted in an open and transparent way. Experience has shown the importance of the League being present to watch—and to take action when necessary.”
“An observer is an individual who attends a governmental meeting, notes what happens at the meeting, and reports back to the League and (hopefully) the community. By attending public meetings of local governmental bodies/agencies, observers learn more about what their government is doing. They learn about the issues facing their community and are empowered to take action if warranted. They also learn how issues are being addressed. Observers keep elected and appointed officials on notice; they let them know that someone is watching what decisions are being made and how they are being made. They help ensure that the issues facing their community are being addressed “in the sunshine, in the open.”
Before attending governmental meetings as an observer, each new observer should attend an orientation or training by the local Observer Corps regarding state and local League policies for observing. New observers are encouraged to attend at least one governmental meeting with another observer. More than one observer may observe the same meetings, indefinitely.
The local League president should send a letter to the governmental body before a new observer begins observing that entity on a regular basis as part of an Observer Corps. The letter should introduce the observer and explain the basic principles of the Observer Corps. Example templates can be found from other Observer Corps around Michigan and the U.S. Example/template included.
Additional to letters introducing new observers, local Leagues may want to use other documents used by other Observer Corps, adapted to local needs, including the following:
- Standard forms to be filled out by observers during governmental meetings. These forms can include checklists, as well as space for notes.
- Tracking documents to summarize local League assignments, as well as basic information about when and where observed governmental entities meet. Information can also be included about additional governmental organizations, particularly those that are a high priority for the local League but still need observers.
- Tracking documents to summarize key issues encountered by observers over time, which might be coded by topic, governmental entity, date, etc.
- Observer Corps newsletters for local League members summarizing relevant issues and information that observers have encountered of particular relevance to other parts of the local League (candidate forum questions, Vote 411 questions, potential advocacy issues, etc.)
- Examples/templates included.
Restrictions. To protect the credibility of the Observer Corps, the local League, and the LWV generally, observers must not actively participate in the substance of the governmental entity they are observing.
• An observer can never be a member of the governmental body they observe. In fact, League members who serve as elected officials should not serve as an observer for any other governmental entity while in office. League members who serve as appointed officials should confer with their local league board before serving as an observer of other governmental entities.
• Observers should not comment as a League member on issues deliberated by the governmental body they observe, particularly during the meetings observed. League comments should be presented by a different League member. Comments as a private citizen could be made at a time and manner separate from any role as observer.
• Observers should function separately from any advocacy efforts made by the local League to the governmental entity being observed.
• Observers should not engage the press about the governmental entity they observe.
The Copper Country League of Women Voters Observer Corps represents Houghton, Baraga, Keweenaw, and Ontonagon Counties. Currently, Linda Belote observes the Houghton County Board of Commissioners. There are no LWV observers in the other three counties. Within each county, there are many other units of government active in the Copper Country: for example Houghton County has 2 cities (Houghton and Hancock), 5 villages, and 14 townships. None of these have League observers. There are in addition 9 public school districts and 2 universities in Houghton County; and other public entities, like our public library, planning commissions, etc. any of which could provide a valuable educational experience for a League member and our League would benefit from the knowledge gained as well.
If you are interested in becoming an observer, please contact Linda Belote (lsbelote [at] mtu.edu / 483-0552) for more information about what is expected of an observer. It is not usually a major consumer of time, most governmental units only meet once a month for an hour. It’s a worthwhile use of time for yourself and your community. A list of possible Houghton County governmental groups to observe with the usual time and place of their meeting is noted, though this can vary, and should always be confirmed with the officials directly. This list (still incomplete) is posted below.
The first reason for observing public meetings is to watch their general operations. What issues are being discussed and how is the meeting being conducted? Does the agency comply with the open meeting laws?
The second reason for observing public meetings is to watch for issues on which the League should be taking action - speaking out. If an item that is being discussed is related to one of our positions then include that in your report. We'll look into it and see whether it's something that the League should be speaking out on.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, observing makes a statement that the community is watching the process of government. The League observer is the representative of the public at these meetings.