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    Bricker basics for running an efficient public meeting

    One question Bricker & Eckler often receives from its local government clients is, “how do we run a good public meeting?” A “good” public meeting is one that is orderly and efficient. Good meetings have a clear structure, everyone involved knows their respective roles and duties, and the governing body knows how to make the best use of the various tools available. This article outlines some of the tips and tricks we recommend to run a smooth and effective public meeting.

    Adopt meeting policies and procedures and stick to them

    The best foundation for an orderly public meeting is to have good policies and procedures for the governing body to follow. Some government bodies choose to adopt standard meeting rules, such as Robert’s Rules of Order. Others opt to create their own tailored set of rules. In either case, meeting policies should cover the general structure of all public meetings, as well as the roles of involved government officials and staff. 

    There isn’t a required sequence of events for a public meeting, but a typical meeting structure usually contains the following core components: (i) opening of the meeting (may include welcoming of guests and brief overview of the meeting agenda and rules for the public); (ii) adoption of the prior meeting’s minutes; (iii) consideration of new business (approval of new contracts/appropriations, public hearings, etc.); (iv) public comment; (v) closing staff reports; and (vi) adjournment of the meeting. The meeting structure should be laid out on an agenda circulated prior to the meeting date. The agenda will serve as the roadmap for the meeting. Stick to it as best you can. It will keep you on topic and on track throughout the meeting.

    Staff and officials of the governing body should know their respective duties during the meeting. For example, which official will open the meeting? Who is going to handle roll call for the governing body following motions? Who will swear in witnesses during public hearings? Who is going to take meeting minutes? Once roles are designated to particular officials and staff, keep them consistent for all meetings moving forward. When you become aware that an official or staff member with a designated role will be absent from a meeting, make sure another official or staff member is lined up to be there and prepared to take over the absentee’s duties.

    Rules should also be set for members of the public in attendance at a public meeting. Rules for the public generally revolve around the public comment portion of the meeting. The public doesn’t necessarily have a right to speak during a meeting (except public hearings, which are a little bit different and explained in more detail below), though most government bodies do choose to include time for public comment in their meeting agendas. Common rules placed on public comment include: (i) an individual may only speak when called to the podium; (ii) speakers must introduce themselves by name and address upon stepping up to the podium; (iii) profanity is prohibited; and (iv) a person’s time to speak is limited (e.g., after five minutes, the speaker must return to his/her seat). It’s useful to briefly go over any rules on public comment at each meeting (either when the meeting is opened or when the public comment portion is opened).

    Know the tools available to you and when to use them

    Local governments conduct business at meetings through a few basic procedural vehicles:  ordinances, resolutions and motions. Municipalities adopt written ordinances to enact new law, and pass resolutions (often written) to enact policies and procedures of the governing body. Townships adopt written resolutions to enact laws and take any other action required to be taken under Ohio law by resolution. For both municipalities and townships, motions are verbal proposals typically used to handle day-to-day, administrative “house-keeping” matters. Knowing when you have the option to use each of these tools can help increase efficiency during a meeting. For example, a handful of contract payments may need to be approved during a meeting. Payment to each vendor could be handled through the passage of separate written resolutions. However, it may be simpler and quicker to approve all of the contract payments at once by including them together on a single consent agenda that can be approved by one oral motion.

    Another tool you have at your disposal is your legal counsel. Some local governments have counsel in attendance at every meeting to help field any legal questions that may come up and generally guide the meeting. Others only call in legal counsel when they’re aware that a particularly contentious issue is on the agenda. It’s often useful to at least have legal counsel review meeting materials prior to a meeting to flag any legal issues that might pop up during the meeting. If a legal issue arises during the meeting and you don’t have counsel present to respond, remember that you generally have the option to table an issue for later decision to allow for additional time to obtain a legal opinion.

    Handle public hearings like a “mini meeting”

    Meetings often include one or more public hearings on matters up for deliberation and vote by the governing body. The topic of a public hearing is usually either a citizen application for permission from the governing body to take some action (e.g., receive a variance from zoning regulations or rezone a parcel) or a citizen appeal from a decision of local government staff (e.g., a citizen believes he/she was wrongfully cited for violating a local law). We suggest handling each public hearing like a “mini meeting” with its own agenda built into the larger meeting agenda. The agenda for a public hearing will usually include: (i) opening of the public hearing; (ii) presentation/report and testimony from government staff with background information on the application or appeal; (iii) presentation from the applicant in support of his/her case; (iv) public comment from any interested third-parties; and (iv) deliberations of the governing body.

    The same general ground rules for public meetings continue to apply to public hearings. Emotions can run high during public hearings, so it’s even more important to strictly enforce the governing body’s rules of order. Third-party members of the public should only speak when called to the podium during the designated public comment portion of the hearing, and their comments should be directed at the governing body (not the applicant). When the public comment portion of the hearing is closed and the governing body enters into deliberations, officials should discuss the evidence presented at the hearing with reference to any specific elements or criteria that are intended to guide its decision (which will likely be outlined in the local law governing the body’s decision).

    Conclusion

    It will usually take several meetings for public officials and staff to get comfortable with new meeting policies and procedures. It may even be helpful to have a couple of meeting “dry-runs” to test out your new meeting structure before jumping into a real public meeting. Once you get into the groove, your meetings will run like a well-oiled machine.

    Bricker & Eckler routinely serves as general counsel during local government meetings and hearings. We also give trainings on this topic to governmental councils, boards and commissions. If you have any questions about running a public meeting or hearing, please do not hesitate to reach out to any member of our Political Subdivisions team.


    This is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be legal advice and does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship.

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