Tips for Meeting Chairs

(from Maine Townsman, November 2004)
By Barry Timson, Mayor of Hallowell

EDITOR’S NOTE: Barry Timson, mayor of Hallowell, was one of three panelists for a session, titled “Effective Meetings: A Legal and Functional View,” held October 6 th at the MMA Convention. Timson has served two stints as mayor of Hallowell for a total of seven years. He also served a couple of years as the chairman of the Planning Board. A handout that Mayor Timson provided to the session’s attendees is printed below. It gives some practical advice to municipal officials who have the responsibility for chairing public meetings. Timson calls the advice "Ten Necessary Ingredients for Chairing A Public Meeting." The tips are provided in ascending order of importance.

Call a Mid-Meeting Break

If the meeting is likely to last more than two hours, call a break at a convenient place in the agenda. People need a break in the debate, chance to go to the restroom, and just plain relax in the middle of the proceedings. If a meeting or hearing is being transcribed by a court reporter, more frequent breaks should be taken to give the reporter some rest time.

Many officials believe productivity really wanes after two hours, but breaks can extend productive meetings to three or three-and-a-half hours if the agenda is lengthy.

Interject Humor into the Meeting

Occasionally, try to interject some humor into the proceedings, even if it is self-deprecating. Timely humor eases tensions and makes the order of business flow quicker.

Repeat Motions, Orders, Amendments, etc.

Prior to a vote on an issue, statute, ordinance, permit approval or denial, summarize the issue and impending action by repeating the motion. State who posed and seconded the motion. Try to quickly summarize the purpose and what would be the results of an amendment to an ordinance.

It is the Chair’s responsibility to keep track of motions and amendments (sometimes this is easier said than done, but it requires that the Chair pay attention to the debate).

You improve the record (minutes of the meeting) by giving the recorder (secretary or clerk) as much clarity as possible. You will also increase the public’s understanding by stating the objective of each deliberation and proceeding. All of this helps you stay organized if the meeting agenda is long and issues are complicated.

Allow For Changes in Agenda Schedule at Beginning of Meeting

If you have a meeting that involves several issues, place those issues involving members of the public, who are attending for specific issues, at the beginning of the meeting. This is just a courtesy to the attendees who are there for a single issue and they will appreciate this consideration. This can also be done to allow for issues where professional and consulting input is going to occur. This will save time and money for both the community and the professional/consultant. There is no need to have an attorney in attendance for three hours when his/her issue will only take 15 minutes. Move that item to the beginning of the agenda (this action requires a council vote).

Allow For Limited Introduction of Issues not on Agenda

This should only apply to regularly scheduled city council, selectmen’s or planning board meetings, not for public hearings or informational meetings which are usually scheduled for only one issue.

There are some legal constraints to dealing with issues that are not on an agenda. Usually, an agenda must be available several days before a meeting (depends on meeting purpose), and deviation from that agenda is not advisable. However, if you allow for limited (15 minutes) citizen introduction of issues not on the agenda, the legislative body allows for public input to learn of new issues it may wish to deal with later and it allows the public to voice their concerns and leave without disrupting the meeting later in the agenda.

Chair the Meeting Through a Printed Agenda

An open meeting without an agenda tempts a free-for-all. Make up an agenda beforehand and have printed copies available to all meeting attendees. While it seems almost self-evident that one should work from an agenda, I cannot tell you how many planning board meetings I have been to as a geologic consultant where agendas are non-existent or not available to the public.

Right off, agendas can state the purpose of the meeting, give essential information such as who the various participants are on the municipal board and other parties, and, if necessary give some guidance as to a time schedule.

Hallowell’s council agenda is detailed and includes a sample motion to place issues on the floor for debate. This alone saves much time, providing councilors with the ability to discuss the wording of a complex motion which might supercede the printed agenda motion.

Restrict Debate to Issues at Hand

Time is of the essence. The objective of any meeting is to successfully conduct the business of the council, board or committee. Repeated deviations from the order of business will eventually be met with tired, disinterested committee members with fidgety tempers.

The chair can effectively interrupt a chatty individual by first apologizing for the interruption, then gently state that testimony must focus on the issue on the floor and that brevity is a virtue. If an individual persists . . . say “I’m sorry, but your speech has strayed from being relevant to the issue on the floor, I will have to ask you to sit down so that we might finish our business at a reasonable hour.”

Keep Effective Control of the Meeting

If you don’t have a gavel, get one. In order for the Chair to control the meeting, the Chair must control. Gavel down intra-audience and intra-council side conversations and ask that they cease, out of courtesy to the individual who has the floor. Ask that individuals raise their hands if they wish to speak. Recognize each speaker. Be fair and do it in the order that people have asked to speak. Control who speaks and the order in which they speak.

It is rare that two individuals get into such a heated, passionate argument that they become uncivil. Gavel incivility down immediately — in most instances those who have been gaveled down will apologize and the meeting can continue. If there are individuals present who clearly wish to disrupt the proceedings, declare a recess and attempt to quell tempers prior to going back into session. If it appears that disruption will occur again, declare the meeting closed and reschedule it for a future date when security can be present.

For effective control, the Chair must be fair, impartial, and polite yet wield the gavel gently and judiciously. The most effective control is by developing a reputation that you run efficient, no-nonsense meetings.

Pre-meeting Preparation is Essential

One of the most frustrating problems which Chairs deal with is council or board members who have not read through their meeting material beforehand — it usually results in that member asking unnecessary questions and wasting time.

Above all, the Chair cannot afford to commence a meeting without doing meeting preparation. This not only includes going through the information packet and understanding each issue, but you should also attempt to forecast which agenda items might be controversial and which agenda items you believe should be moved forward to make the meeting more efficient and productive.

Preparation also means coming to the meeting as much as 30 minutes prior to make sure you have all necessary presentation materials available (projector, screen, presentation easel, etc.). Introduce yourself to public participants who might want to speak, arrange with a councilor to motion to have certain items moved forward in the agenda, and even negotiate with a neighborhood group to have a spokesperson, rather than allow each of a dozen citizens to get up and give duplicative testimony.

Attempt to know beforehand who you might have to address by name — including your own council or board members. It is helpful to silently look about the room at participants and repeat to yourself each individual’s name. Yes, it happens — you sit in the same room for over a year with the same council members and all of sudden go to recognize a certain member and you have momentarily forgotten their name! This is not likely to happen if you mentally prep before the start of the meeting.

Knowing Roberts Rules of Order is important. While not essential to read from cover-to-cover on the procedures for conducting a meeting, it is suggested that the basic procedures should be learned regarding motions, amendments, postponement of items vs. tabling of items, which motions supercede others, adjournments, etc.

Public Participation is of Paramount Importance

You are doing the public’s business on behalf of the public. It is important that members of the public are given an opportunity to speak to any issue on the agenda. Also, thank them for coming to the meeting and participating.

In most cases, the public audience will be attentive and courteous to the proceedings. You can attempt to diffuse tension or contentiousness by stating up-front, at the beginning of the discussion on the particular agenda item that you wish to allow everyone in the audience the opportunity to speak if they so choose. You can usually reduce debate by stating that the Council is thoroughly aware of the issue and that a presentation by a representative of a group is preferable to hearing the same concerns again and again.

Be patient and attentive to the concerns of the public. They in turn will be appreciative of your service to the community.