Municipalities are charged with keeping employees prepared and keeping cities and towns safe. How hard can it be? Very hard. And getting harder.
Risks have multiplied. It started in the late 1970s when liability increased exponentially with the loss of municipal immunity from unlimited liability for negligent acts or inactions by municipal employees. Today, litigation costs continue to soar. Internet exposure has brought with it new threats to data confidentiality, operational continuity and financial predictability. Social media and email create new ways to inadvertently break open meeting laws, public record laws and freedom of information requirements. Stanley Corcoran, Executive Vice President of three Massachusetts interlocal insurance association organizations, assesses the resulting predicament: “[C]ities and towns face huge unfunded liabilities and simply do not have the resources to stay on top of them all.”
If your municipality is struggling, you are not alone. Experts share the following tips for managing the multiple risks that counties, cities and towns are facing.
Employees also need training. All employees should learn cybersecurity protocols. Staff should be trained routinely on best practices for safety in their respective domains, be it driving emergency vehicles, “talking down” difficult constituents or policing special events.
Teaming up with neighboring cities and towns can reduce the cost of such training while creating a mutual aid network. Essex, MA, has partnered with four nearby towns to get training on emergency preparedness. It has created efficiencies, as expected. The surprising benefit was that the resulting network has proven essential in the aftermath of emergencies, before long-term assistance arrives.
Municipalities also run the risk of breaking open meeting laws in new and surprising ways. Banning board emails prevents inadvertent electronic “meetings” that many states have deemed breaches of open meeting laws. Texting between board members can have the same effect. Both emails and texts on popular unsecured apps further expose sensitive data to the risk of data theft or system corruption. Board communication should be confined to messages conveyed over a secure board portal and texts sent over a secure app that replaces what comes pre-loaded on many smartphones.
Open record laws increasingly call for posting much more than meeting minutes and agendas online; the voluminous “public records” can now be stored on the internet. As more states call for electronic archiving of public records, these records should be stored in a secure location with searchability to give researchers a fair shot at finding what they’re looking for.
Complying with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements shields municipalities from potentially embarrassing federal investigations. As these regulations change frequently, the best bet is to use board portal software from a vendor that has its finger on the pulse of disability accommodation legislation. Ideally, a software company will have an active partnership with the Office of Civil Rights to stay as up-to-date as possible with new revisions to requirements. (Beware false prophets! Claims of compliance are often unfounded, and the software company itself may not realize it.)
It’s not enough to adopt these best practices in governance; ensuring their continuity is a growing challenge. The Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association (MIIA) has recently seen a high rate of turnover in municipal leadership due to retirements. New leaders will lack a deep understanding of the municipality’s governance practices; they may not even know what those policies are. Always include more than one or two people when you determine and review your governance strategy to ensure continuity. Make sure some younger officials are in the room alongside seasoned veterans.
Transparency and communication keep public trust alive. Many steps can help: posting meeting agendas on a user-friendly public-facing website; putting public records online with user-friendly features like searchability; voluntarily filming your own open meetings and posting the video on the same website; and forging new channels of communication to reach segments of the population not traditionally interested in municipal affairs. Online communication can be combined with face-to-face events to reach more young people and homebound constituents.
As risks multiply, you are not helpless. Adopting exemplary practices can significantly reduce your vulnerability. Then you can rest assured that you’ve brought into the 21st century the timeless insight of Cicero: “The safety of the people shall be the highest law.”
Corcoran, Stanley, “The Evolution of Municipal Risk Management,” Risk Management September 21, 2015
Government Finance Officers Association, “Creating a Comprehensive Risk Management Program”
Michael Preis Insurance Agency, “Risk Management and Insurance Programs for Municipalities,” www.michaelpreis.com
National League of Cities, “The 10 Critical Imperatives Facing Cities in 2014”