Home > Representing > Why most public meetings suck (and what to do about it)

Why most public meetings suck (and what to do about it)

Guest writer: Bill Palladino

Part II

Yesterday was about why public meetings suck. Today’s is about how to make them better…or, at the least how to judge them.

Here are my 10 rules for providing valued public participation in government/municipal meetings (a future post will have lists for nonprofit organization meetings).

  1. Public meetings should be public. This definition shouldn’t stop with the bare minimum requirements of the public meetings act.  Public officials should seriously reach out to their constituents and find ways to invite them into the meetings as equal partners. Doing this consistently will, over time, create meetings where all sides of a conversation are represented rather than the usual knee-jerk turnouts strongly leaning towards one side on an issue.  In the long run this solution serves the public officials too.
  1. Meeting rooms should be comfortable for both officials and the audience. Too many public meetings are held in stale windowless rooms, with the audience as a second-thought.  It’s almost as if they’re based on some centuries-old image of British Parliament.  The audience should feel comfortable and welcome, and they should be encouraged to participate.
  2. Public officials should make efforts to connect with audience members prior to and/or after the meeting. Being elected to office does not give anyone the right to ignore the people who put them there.  In fact, it is just the opposite in a true democracy. But it’s a lot easier for individuals to make decisions in a vacuum when they separate themselves from their people.  Officials should not enter and exit public meeting rooms through some rear entrance that keeps them away from citizenry.  It’s a simple act that sends a big message.
  3. The physical set-up of the room should not separate officials from audience members. Furthering numbers 2 and 3 above, the design of meeting chambers should not put huge distances between officials and audience members. Next time you’re at a public meeting sit in the front row. If the desks of officials are more than eight feet away, that distance can be used to disengage from the public. Ask yourself why the room is set up that way.
  4. Audience members should be treated with respect and encouraged to participate. Some entities seem to treat public participation in meetings as a nuisance.  Officials show this through body language, tone of voice or other forms of acting out displeasure.

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6-10 continued below

Click through for full version

  1. Public comment sections should include opportunity for Q&A. Many public entities see the “public comment” section of meetings as a one-way soapbox.  This is fine, but there should also be space for the public to ask questions directly of their elected officials at the meeting.  Not providing such a space holds the danger of creating frustrated community members.  Finding ways to engage and fully validate those who come to public meetings is critical.
  2. Attorneys should not be seated at the same table as public officials. In an effort to provide a legal framework and guidance to public officials, attorneys are often seated among them. This is a mistake. It sends a message to the public that the public body values the word of a hired lawyer over that of the citizenry. Let’s face it, attorneys can be intimidating. If they are seated with the convening group this creates another layer of defense that officials can hide behind. Attorneys are necessary, but certainly not in the foreground of public discourse.  They should be in the background, ready to contribute when necessary, but should otherwise not play a large role.
  3. All public officials should contribute to the discussion. Leaders, especially those voted into office, should lead.  Often officials take a highly 
passive approach in public, barely speaking up about important items.  This isn’t leadership, 
it’s control masquerading as shyness. Elected officials should be expected to chime in on every issue of importance that comes across the table.  Why else are they there?
  4. The public should have at their disposal information about issues brought up at each meeting. Public officials often bring up items on an agenda without allowing the public access to the same information they hold.  This is one of the oldest methods of weakening a democratic process… keeping people in the dark. Public officials simply need to help members of the public educate themselves regarding the issues at hand.
  5. Notes and official minutes of the meeting should be available quickly after the meeting, and leadership should make a point of telling the public where to access these documents. Full transparency includes the opportunity for the public to view the official record 
of meetings in a timely manner.  Minutes are typically the official legal documentation of all actions in public meetings. It’s important to ensure they represent reality, and it’s the public’s responsibility to do so.

What do you think? Make sense? Have additional criteria to suggest?

The scorecard below is your chance to be the Olympic judge mentioned yesterday.

Download it and print one out the next time you go to a public meeting. After you fill it out, let the world know what you think of public process via the MyWHaT online scorecard.

Keep us posted.

Download your scorecard here (PDF)

Online scorecard can be found at: http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/WEB22ALF6LABFL

 

  1. May 5, 2010 at 7:45 am

    Worth checking out in relation to this post is photographer Paul Shambroom’s Meetings Series http://bit.ly/9bmoPp

    After seeing this photo series a couple years ago it has really changed how I view and sit through meetings. Not to make our mayor self-conscious, but it is really intriguing to study the body language of the folks “up there in front”. Often, more is said in what they don’t say and how they say it. Really, it’s true for all of us.

  2. May 5, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Gary, your ten-point thoughts are universally brilliant and in-your-face correct. Every citizen of the US should read and internalize these ten points….these are the lessons and the facts of life not being taught….at least I never heard this in school!

    I have served on public bodies and I was painfully aware of the desks facing the audience and the no-man’s land in-between. Now, speaking to an official body feels more like being on trial, talking to a Grand Jury. I feel like I’m being judged, instead of encouraged, to share my thoughts with ‘leaders’. I rarely feel a spirit of collaboration, or get feedback from a board of leaders. If they are so smart, pro-active and powerful, why are there so many problems? The more minds there are, tackling a challenge, the faster and better the answer is attained.

    I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe we need to take a lesson from TV Talent shows, and have the ‘judges’ (leaders) all speak their minds after each live act. It would force them to pay attention and share their thoughts. Time limits would become critical, however. (I just hope I won’t get booted off the show with a low score card).

  3. veggiesintc
    May 5, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Bill,
    The (your) 10 rules are very informative and should be part of every organization’s rules. I would like to add a comment about # 6 rule; while it is helpful to ask questions of your local officials, I would never expect them to answer during a public meeting. (From experience, you just nod, thank them, and take it.) For good or for bad, we have a (voters only) representative form of government. Those officials represent the majority of the voters and those who we’ve elected should not have to debate members of the public during a public comment session. Those sessions are just that – the public comment session.

  4. Bill Palladino
    May 5, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Yo Veggies:

    Agreed. There’s an important caveat though. Governmental bodies, if not allowing for Q&A in a formal meeting, need to find another forum for public engagement. I think its fair to ask public officials questions such as: “Can you tell me what research you’ve done on the subject outside the meeting?” or “Can you clarify why you are negative about this issue?” Citizens have a right to ask and know this stuff. Too often officials simply hide behind some false pretense of formality. “We don’t have to answer your questions!”

    What I’m aiming for is an ambiance of openness where the chairperson asks for public comment, clarifying that we only have time to take pure comments and not questions. Then to have this followed up immediately with an invitation for the proper venue to have this discovery. Avoiding this interaction breeds mistrust and really doesn’t serve anyone in the long run. In lieu of such bi-directional communication, officials should be prepared to offer clear justification and background for their decisions in the meetings. “I’m voting this way because….,” etc.

    In terms of Traverse City, I think we’re well along the path to a better public process. Recent City-sponsored forums are just the recipe we need. And just to be clear these ten points were not designed with Traverse City in mind. They should work as universal tenets for any community.

    I recognize the balance, and as a professional facilitator know too well the downside of meetings that have too little structure. If we can move meetings somewhere in the middle it might be a very different world. Thanks for reading.

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