By Pamela Whitmore
Meetings are part of the regular routine of a city council. However, councilmembers sometimes struggle with advocating for their personal positions on city issues while respecting the council’s mandatory group decision-making process.
Adding to this struggle, Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law generally requires city councils to have this dialogue in public meetings, giving the public a right to attend and observe. The dynamic between comfortably engaging in the give and take of decision-making, but doing so within the public eye, can lead to disruptive meetings and conflict. But conflict can be avoided by adopting and following sound meeting strategies.
One of the best practices a council can follow is to adopt clear meeting procedures. Well-managed meetings can dilute and even prevent debilitating conflict from derailing meetings.
Many city councils and members of the public assume that councils must follow Robert’s Rules of Order. However, under Minnesota law, councils can adopt their own rules of procedure—whether that is Robert’s Rules, Sturgis Rules, Rosenberg Rules, or the council’s own simplified rules.
Once adopted, the entire council—not just the person running the meeting—should learn the rules of procedure, since the chair is subject to the will of the council as a whole. The chair is the leader of the meeting, but not the boss.
In addition to adopting rules to better manage the pace and tone of the meeting, clearing up confusion about other fundamental parts of meetings can decrease distrust and lead to more efficient meetings. Agenda-setting represents one of the most common catalysts for distrust.
Having a standard agenda format and a clear agenda-setting policy avoids confusion about how to get things on the agenda and, more importantly, assures individual councilmembers of the opportunity to get things heard. It also lets participants know what will be discussed at the meeting and how the meeting will be run.
Meeting agendas that include a time for “reports of mayor and/or councilmembers” strengthen council relations and increase trust. This agenda item allows councilmembers to keep each other, staff, and the public informed about non-agenda items and about action items from previous meetings.
Public comment policy
Managing public comment can also increase efficiencies and lead to better decisions. By allowing time for residents to comment at meetings, councilmembers have a chance to hear new perspectives and information.
However, residents often mistakenly think they have a right to actively participate in council meetings without any restrictions. By adopting a clear public comment policy, councils can manage the expectations of residents and their role.
Key components of a public comment policy include a sign-in sheet, a time limit on comments, and rules of decorum for commenting. The policy should also make it clear that councilmembers will only listen, not engage, during the comment time. If questions arise because of information learned from public comments, the council can direct staff or a specific councilmember to look into the issue and report back to the council as a whole.
How councilmembers can help
Lastly, councilmembers themselves can help meetings run more smoothly by following these basic tips:
- Read the packet before the meeting and share any possible questions or concerns with staff ahead of time. Realize that staff work for the city and act on the direction of the council as a whole, not at the discretion of individual councilmembers or the mayor.
- Arrive to meetings on time.
- Approach every agenda item with the belief that everyone has something to contribute and likely has information that you do not have.
- Avoid making assumptions and listen with a true curiosity.
- Focus on the policy, not the person, and leave personal feelings at the door.
- Acknowledge others’ reasoning and explain your own.
- Keep cell phones and other distractors off the dais.
- Focus on progress toward the overall goals of the city, not individual positions.
A key element of a city council meeting is to allow the council to engage in debate, when necessary, to reach the best decision for the city. How councilmembers behave in those meetings matters a great deal. With the right mindset of councilmembers and clear policies in place, public meetings can result in efficient decision-making.
Pamela Whitmore is collaboration and mediation manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1224.