Jan. 20 — 15 years of meetings

My dog Lucy

I intend to blog every day this year, but I missed yesterday. Ah well, no one’s reading it anyway, so why should I care? To make up for yesterday’s missed post, here’s my weekly column from the Messenger.

Observations from 15 years of meetings

It’s possible that no one in the county has sat in on more meetings of public bodies during the last 15 years than I have. During that time, I’ve made a lot of observations about public meetings, including the following.

1. Robert is your friend. Robert’s Rules of Order were first published in 1876 by a U.S. Army Brigadier General named Henry Martyn Robert. Since that time they’ve become the standard operating procedures for all sorts of groups, including elected and appointed government bodies, non-profit boards, and corporations.
Some public bodies in the area don’t adhere strictly to Robert’s rules. One past mayor in our area rarely if ever asked for discussion after a motion was seconded. A current mayor, after a motion and a second, simply says, “Any opposed?” If not, the motion is carried without a vote.
State law doesn’t require Robert’s rules for cities, but many city charters do require it, for good reasons. First, Robert’s rules make exceptionally clear what occurs in a meeting, what action is taken, and who supports or opposes it. Second, the rules specifically invite discussion. Without it, some board members may feel they’ve been railroaded into supporting a motion without time to think about it. Asking for discussion slows down the deliberative process, ensuring that all motions are carefully considered.
If you don’t use Robert’s rules, don’t be surprised if some day a citizen or board member takes issue with or even legal action against something the city, school board, or county decides.
2. Learn from the neighbors. I’ve rarely seen members of one city council, school board, or county board attending meetings in neighboring jurisdictions.
That’s crazy. The best way to learn how things could be done better is to see how others do it, and the taxpayers would benefit.
For example, some councils have the engineer sitting in every month. Others have the lawyer in attendance. Still others have neither.
It’s struck me over the years that having the engineer or attorney present makes it more likely that the city will pay for that person’s or firm’s services. Basically you’re inviting a salesperson to the meeting.
3. Minnesota nice has its limits. A recent truth-in-taxation meeting in the area had members listening for close to an hour to the one couple who bothered to show up. All they did was repeat their concerns (many of which were uninformed or inaccurate), over and over again, and all the board did was nod sympathetically, over and over again.
Thank goodness there wasn’t a better turnout.
Commissioner Phil Peterson at the Mille Lacs County Board runs the most efficient meetings I’ve attended. I disagree with him most of the time, and he can be blunt, curt, and irascible, but at least he treats people like grownups who can handle it if someone says, “You’ve made your point. Thank you. Goodbye.”
There’s nothing wrong with limiting people to a certain amount of time, or cutting them off, or telling them they’re out of order. It can be done politely, respectfully, and in accordance with the rules. In fact, sometimes members of the public who come to a meeting unprepared and ignorant need a dose of the truth.
Maybe the public would attend more meetings if elected officials would accomplish their business in a more timely and efficient manner. A long meeting isn’t necessarily a good meeting. Often just the opposite.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

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