Working Rules for Meetings: Getting Down to Business, And Doing It
(from Maine Townsman, May 1997)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

  Do you have members that carry on side-conversations during a board or council meeting? Do you have members that "hog" the discussion? Insult each other? Interrupt each other? Are your meetings too long?

  Do you have members that talk with the press on executive session matters? Do you want the public comment at your meetings, but are afraid it will get out of hand?

  Do you have agendas that grow topsy turvy? Agendas that you never get through? Do you find yourself inundated with petitions to reconsider votes taken?

  If you answered "yes" to any of the above, you might want to consider adopting some working rules for your meetings. Not only will they go a long way toward ensuring that people are treated equally and fairly during the meeting, they will also foster stability not to mention productivity.

  All of which is to say, with a set of ground rules to guide your meetings officials will not be driven from office by a sense of chaos or a lack of civility, and you will be able to run what is known as an effective meeting. Which is to say, you will be able to get down to the business of doing business, which is what you were elected to do.

  This article looks at two types of ground or working rules: those that are primarily "behavioral" and those that are primarily "procedural". It draws mostly on the work done by Pamela Plumb, a former Portland city councilor and mayor turned facilitator and trainer, and Dee Kelsey, the author of material used in MMA’s Governing Skills Project. (see sidebar)

 Not to be Confused with Robert’s Rules

  It should be stated at the outset that the kind of ground or working rules described in this article are not to be confused with Robert’s Rules of Order, the classic guide to proper meeting procedure that has been with us for more than 120 years. Robert's Rules, in its 9th edition, takes some 700 pages to spell out proper meeting procedures. The paperback version of the book sells for $15.

  While the rules described in this article have the same intent as Robert’s Rules - the fair and orderly conduct of a meeting - they are different in that they deal with day-to-day situations, germane to local government. And not only are they more reader-friendly and accessible than Robert’s 700 pages of rules, they include rules pertaining to proper behavior as well as to proper procedure.

  And last but not least, they, especially the behavioral ground rules, differ from Robert’s Rules in that there is a sense of "ownership" by those using them in that they have been drafted and adopted by those who use them.

  But none of this implies that Robert's Rules should not be used as a template for your own customized ground or working rules, especially when it comes to the making, debating and adoption of motions.

Behavioral Ground Rules

  As Pam Plumb sees it, the kind of ground rules that she specializes in, in both her training sessions and in the soon-to-be-published book, "Great Meetings" (see sidebar), co-authored with Dee Kelsey, focus on relationships between board or council members.

"They are the rules that say we are going to treat each other and the public with respect and have the public treat us with respect. They are the rules that are based on the belief that everyone involved in a meeting should be treated fairly and equally," says Plumb.

They are the rules that say we are going to debate ideas and not people, not interrupt each other, and not have side conversations, to name just a few.

But they are also the kind of rules that people sometimes "abandon in the heat of discussion", say the two in their book. That’s why it is important to write them down , as a reminder to what you have agreed to in "quieter" times.

The Process

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In order to get people to buy into the rules in the first place, they must have a sense of what Plumb and Kelsey call "ownership".

That is why it is important for each group to discuss and develop its own set of ground rules, says Plumb. As the two see it, the trouble with most ground rules is that they are so vague no one knows exactly what they mean. So it is important to discuss what is acceptable behavior, agree on what you mean by acceptable behavior, and put in writing what you mean by acceptable behavior.

It’s not enough to merely say you will "treat each other with respect." You need to spell out exactly what one means by "treat with respect", like not interrupting or talking while another person is talking, or sharing the floor, or monitoring your own air time, or arriving on time and staying to the end.

As Plumb sees it, in the process of developing the ground rules, a group takes its first step in letting go of some of the "bad behavior" that has been getting in its way, behavior that has been making for somewhat less than effective meetings.

Plumb recalls working with one town where people were yelling, ranting and raving at each other. "They were all adults of good will," said Plumb, "but there was a tradition of yelling, ranting and raving. Yet, once they said out loud that they would not call each other names, that they would not yell at each other, there was a sense of group relief."

But it’s not easy to let go of habit. Traditions are stubborn, says Plumb. That’s why it is important to write out the agreed upon ground rules and if necessary, especially at first, to post them in sight of everyone and refer to them at the beginning of each meeting and if necessary during the meeting when they are being broken, says Plumb. "In this way members are able to police themselves," she says.

The Value

Respectful behavior aside, the real value of behavioral ground rules lies in their enabling everyone to speak and be heard, says Plumb.

As Plumb sees it, the setting of ground rules can go a long way towards building a positive tradition of how to disagree. For it is not the intent of doing away with disagreement that ground rules are set. On the contrary, the problem is not in the fact that we disagree, but how we disagree, says Plumb.

  When you agree not to interrupt; when you agree to listen for understanding; when you agree to do a "true" check of what you understand the other person to have said. When you have agreed to all this, you are on the way to building a positive tradition on how to disagree, says Plumb.

  It is Plumb’s belief that when a board or council builds a positive tradition for doing the public’s business, that the public will reflect the behavior at public meetings. And to nurture this behavior, there is nothing wrong in making the ground rules available to the public, says Plumb. The chair can read them aloud at the beginning of the meeting or hearing; or officials can, as some towns do, attach the rules to the written agenda; or they can simply print them on a poster hung in full view of the audience, suggests Plumb.

  Examples of behavioral ground rules:

One of the municipalities in Maine that has developed a set of behavioral ground rules in the past few years is Windham (pop. 13, 484). The town council developed them jointly with the school committee during a series of workshops in 1991 that were designed to develop a better working relationship between the two groups. As such, the rules that follow are entitled "Ground Rules for Joint Session":

• no personal attacks

• stay away from referrals to the past and old grudges

• remain positive

• remember, we are all from one community and are working together

• no speeches

• demonstrate respect

• no interruptions

• end on time

• no inflammatory or patronizing remarks

• everyone participates

• disagree, but do not be disagreeable

• stay constructive

• no characterizations as "good guy" and "bad guy"

• no blaming

• go into the budget season with empathy for each other’s particular roles

• stay on subject

It is not surprising that the Windham Town Council has also developed its own set of similar but not identical ground rules, adding: "no rush to judgment of each other’s opinions".

 Procedural Ground Rules

  Procedural ground rules often take their lead from municipal charters which give councils the authority to develop their own working rules, and in some cases could be said to be reader friendly, accessible, and customized versions of Robert’s Rules of Order.

  The following examples are drawn from the working rules of the Bath (pop. 9,957) and the Gorham (pop.12,542) town councils. Bath’s rules fill three pages; Gorham’s are eight pages due to the fact that the rules spell out the duties of the numerous council committees. In most cases, the wording of the rules as they appear in this article has been modified for editorial purposes.

  Examples of procedural ground rules:

Agenda Items. In Bath, all agenda items, under normal cirumstances, are to be submitted to the town clerk’s office six days prior to any regular or special meeting. If not done so, the council chair may present the matter to the council with a majority vote of councilors present required for it to be included on the agenda.

  Special Meetings. In Gorham, special meetings of the council may be called by the chair; in the absence of or refusal by the chair, the meeting may be called by three members of the town council. Notice of such meetings must be served in person or delivered to the residence of each member at least 24 hours before the time for holding such a meeting, unless all members sign a waiver of the required notice. Such a notice mailed to each council member and postmarked in Gorham at least two mail delivery days preceding the date of the special meeting shall meet the requirement for delivery of to the councilors' residence. The notice shall set forth the matters to be acted upon, and nothing else may be voted upon at the meeting.

  Executive Sessions. In Bath, all motions for executive sessions shall state the "nature" of matters to be dealt with. No topic other than that referred to in the motion shall be discussed during executive session. All matters discussed during executive session shall be held in strictest confidence by councilors and shall not be discussed with, or divulged to any person other than a fellow councilor or to persons in attendance at the executive session. Any violation of this confidentiality requirement shall be deemed to be a malfeasance of office and shall subject the offending councilor to sanction by the council as set forth in the city charter.

  Posting of Minutes. In Gorham, a copy of the record of the council decisions taken at a formal meeting shall be posted by the town clerk within three working days at one or more places within the Town of Gorham. Such minutes shall constitute the official record of the actions on all ordinances, resolutions, orders and votes taken by the council.

  Councilor Comments. In Bath, councilors are limited to five minutes in their comments on any one motion before the council. They may also speak for five minutes on any amendment to a motion. No councilor may speak more than twice on any given motion or amendment. This rule may be waived by a majority vote of the council present, and such motions may be made by the councilor wishing the additional time.

  Public Comment. Because public participation is encouraged during their council meetings, it is not surprising that both Bath and Gorham devote a considerable space in their council rules to procedures governing that participation.

  Among other things, Bath allows public comment at the beginning of every council meeting to items that are not on the agenda; it also allows for comment, following the introduction and discussion by the council of agenda items. All individuals addressing the council are asked to limit their comments to five minutes or less. and no individual may address the council more than twice on any agenda item. In Gorham, the five minute limit may be extended by the chair.

  Procedure aside, each set of rules makes one strong statement as to what it expects of the public’s behavior.

In Bath, "No public comment shall be allowed which has the effect of embarrassing or attacking the character of any individual or councilor, and this rule shall be liberally construed and strictly enforced."

  In Gorham, "Persons present at Council meetings are requested not to applaud or otherwise express approval or disapproval of any statements made or actions taken at such meetings." "The Chair shall not allow comments of a personal or derogatory nature, as they relate to the applicant, Councilor or other speakers.

  Reconsideration. In Gorham, when a vote is passed, a member who voted in the majority, or in the negative on a tie vote may ask for a reconsideration at that meeting or at the next regular meeting but not later. Once the reconsideration is made, it cannot be reconsidered again. In regards to petitions, a petition once presented to and acted upon by the town council shall not again be received for presentation in the same or substantially the same form for a period of one year. A member of the town council, voting with the majority on the original petition, shall be privileged to reintroduce such a petition.

 SIDEBAR: Resources

 MMA's Governing Skills Project, formerly known as the Effective Governance Project, has offered elected municipal officials skill building programs since its inception in 1991. There are three standard programs: "Working Together", "Group Dynamics", and "Engaging the Public Constructively". Councils or boards may work with the MMA to design a program that meets its specific needs. For further information, contact Steve Gove at the MMA at 1-800-452-8786.

 "Great Meetings: How to Facilitate Like A Pro", by Pam Plumb and Dee Kelsey. Available from Hanson Park Press, P.O. Box 3883, Portland, Maine 04101. Cost $29, plus tax and handling. Available June 1, 1997