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City Promotes Expanded Democratic Participation

Picture of City Hall in the spring. Photo courtesy of the City of Montpelier website.
While democracy and voting rights are under attack across the country, the city of Montpelier is removing barriers by offering a small payment to those participating in city government.

The city’s 23 boards, commissions, and committees are the foundation on which city government runs, yet several factors — including financial barriers — prevent some from taking part. At the recommendation of the Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee (SEJAC), the city council included $30,000 in the 2022–23 budget to offer stipends to persons who participate on city boards, commissions, and committees. The policy that will enable that pilot program to begin will go before the council on April 27. 

“Getting more voices into the process and hearing from a variety of people with different lived experiences who could bring a breadth of perspectives to our city processes and committees” is central to the stipend program, Councilor Lauren Hierl said at the April 11 SEJAC special meeting. “We all benefit from having that broader perspective and participation.” 

Hierl is one of the two council liaisons on the committee. Councilor Jennifer Morton recently became the second.

Why a Stipend

The stipend program, which, pending council approval, will begin July 1, was the first recommendation from Creative Discourse, the consulting firm that last year did an exhaustive study of “the concerns and needs of underserved and underrepresented communities in Montpelier.” As defined in the report, those communities include people who are “financially insecure or precariously housed,” multiracial, Black, Asian-American, Indigenous, Latinx, or part of the LGBTQ+ community. Some people are part of more than one of those groups, and financial issues are frequent barriers in all communities.

“The purpose of Montpelier’s Board and Committee Stipend Program is to make available financial stipends for everyone appointed or elected to a board, commission, or committee that meets with a routine schedule on request,” the policy states. “Stipends of $50 per meeting can be provided to volunteers to compensate them for their time, child care assistance, food, transportation, or other needs in order to attend meetings.”

How it Works 

The policy lays out procedures and details, noting, for example, that city employees, as well as councilors and others who already receive stipends, are not eligible to receive these stipends. The city’s 23 committees meet about 250 times a year and include about 155 non-unique members (which means some people serve on multiple committees), so the $30,000 budgeted for the program is not nearly enough to pay all committee members to attend all meetings. While each person is free to make their own decision about taking a stipend, the expectation is that since the purpose is to help people who face hardships, many others will not.

Coordinating Payments

Committee chairs will turn in a monthly attendance sheet to Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer, who will coordinate payments. Persons receiving stipends will need to complete a registration form and an IRS W-9 Form. As required by the IRS, if the city pays someone $600 or more, the income will be reported to the IRS. Those requesting stipends will be able to turn the forms in to the committee chair or directly to Niedermayer, so others on the committee would not necessarily know if someone is getting a stipend; however, ultimately, all city payments are public record.

Measuring Success

At its weekly meeting on April 20, SEJAC Chair Shaina Kasper stressed the importance of establishing success measures and collecting data to help determine whether the program is effective. The point is, as Hierl said in an earlier meeting, “Is this accomplishing what we hope in terms of making participation in city committees more accessible to more people?”

Baseline data will be established by SEJAC by asking other committees to complete a brief survey that will provide a demographic snapshot of who is serving on committees now. While tracking the number of applications and committee vacancies is easy, tracking demographics is not so simple, since some people may not want to answer questions about such personal issues as financial status and racial or gender identification. No one can be required to provide that information, so SEJAC would receive it only from those who volunteer it. Noting that the city can keep some personnel information confidential, Niedermayer said she will inquire about whether that could be the case for individual demographic data collected by SEJAC.

Committee member Michael Sherman expressed concern about the low participation of other committees in the special meeting on April 11. That meeting was held to give SEJAC updates on how other committees are doing in raising awareness and possibly making adjustments in response to the Creative Discourse recommendations, as well as to ask for their feedback related to the draft Stipend Program Policy. Only a handful of committees sent a representative to the all-Zoom meeting. Sherman asked whether the timing of the meeting, low committee interest, or other factors discouraged participation. Kasper said she planned to check in with the chairs of some other committees to get their input on these issues.