Local municipalities vary on how public meetings are run
Once again, I’m away from my desk. I’m taking a road trip this week to visit family in Wisconsin. Here’s one of my favorite columns from January 2015. I love community meetings. I’ve covered more than 45 different municipalities and school districts. They’re all little soap operas, with a purpose, and as long as they don’t drag on for more than 3 hours, I’m fully engaged. All meetings differ, but the results are the same. Enjoy!
Meeting agendas are road maps.
It’s all there, in black and white. Agendas are neatly typed. Categories are consistent from meeting to meeting.
Oftentimes, the shortest agendas guide us through the longest meetings. A meeting projected to last 30 minutes might end up lasting three hours. On any particular night will supervisors spend an hour on budget talks or table the discussion?
Municipalities follow different agenda templates. Some are basic, with few items listed, while others include every detail.
There are two types of reporters, those who love community meetings and those who are bored by them. Public meetings are full of little soap opera-like moments--often with big implications. Although, after talking for more than three hours, everybody just wants to go home.
What follows are some of the most common agenda items:
1. CALL MEETING TO ORDER The chair starts the meeting, typically on time, though political discussion and schmoozing sometimes causes a delay.
2. ROLL CALL Supers confirm to a clerk or assistant that they are present. Primarily recorded for the minutes, the meeting’s official record. The audience can easily look for themselves to see if a supervisor is missing.
3. THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE Only students say the pledge more often than public officials and reporters.
4. PUBLIC COMMENT OF NON-AGENDA ITEMS Often, the most interesting part of the meeting. You never know what residents are thinking. Does somebody disagree with the zoning officer or does a dangerous intersection require a stop sign?
Unfortunately some townships, boroughs and cities limit residents to either three or five minutes. Many of those municipalities use an egg timer and sometimes strictly enforce the limit. If a resident is so moved to go out of their way, leave a comfy home and attend a meeting, they should be able to speak as long as they wish. The board is not limited, why should the residents be?
5. ACCEPTANCE OF THE MINUTES FROM THE PREVIOUS MEETINGS Hopefully the board has read those minutes. Typically only typos are noted and changed.
6. COMMENDATIONS A longtime volunteer is retiring after working on several committees after 22 years or a police officer delivered a baby. Plaques are often presented and it’s a great time to take photos of smiling politicians.
7. REPORTS Typically, police, fire and ambulance company chiefs recap the previous month. Police regularly list how many traffic citations were issued, the number of calls answered and how many miles officers traveled. Ambulance companies report on everything from fatalities to the average response time to the number of traffic accidents. I’m always shocked to hear that the most common ambulance response is for fallen residents, especially in townships with senior living facilities. Fire companies often tell of the amount of fuel consumed, the number of hours spent responding and how many first responders were involved for a particular event.
8. COMMITTEE AND STAFF REPORTS The treasurer, road master, solicitor, township manager, open space committee and municipal authority, etc., all discuss previous
committee meetings and points of interest.
By this time, residents are often fidgeting and sometimes checking off items with a pen on the agenda as items are disposed of. By this time, not much “news” has yet happened
and much of the meeting to date has been administrational.
9. DEVELOPER PRESENTATIONS Not as common as they were prior to 2008, but still a good
chance to hear if they’re building a convenience store in your backyard or 633 townhouses on a pretty corn field. Typically, there are many questions, and sometimes a bit of horse trading. A builder might suggest building four storeys high, thus exceeding the township’s height restriction. The board might in turn ask if the builder would consider expanding the foot print of a park or open space.
10.CONSENT AGENDA A bunch of unrelated stuff cobbled together for a single aye or nay vote. Everything the board deems not important enough to discuss prior to a vote. Items are regularly removed and voted on individually.
11. OLD BUSINESS FROM THE FLOOR Did
that old bridge fall down? Are plans for a new park still ongoing? Anything that’s been previously discussed is open game.
12. NEW BUSINESS FROM THE FLOOR The board discusses subjects at length. Prior to votes, the audience tries to determine which way an individual super might swing on a particular agenda item. Often, this is the first time we’ve heard about a particular subject.
13. OLD BUSINESS FROM THE BOARD We now get to really know how those with a vote, and seated at the podium, are thinking. Did a super change their mind since the last meeting?
14. AUTHORIZE PAYING THE BILLS Supervisors scan outstanding debits,
then vote to pay what is due. Immediately following the meeting supervisors sign physical checks.
15. OPEN ISSUES BEFORE THE TOWNSHIP Anything that’s ongoing. What’s the condition of a road needing work but is not budgeted?
16. COMMUNICATIONS AND CORRESPONDENCE Full letters to the township might be read. This is a way for those not attending to take part.
17. UPCOMIMNG MEETINGS AND EVENTS Read into the record, usually quickly.
17. ADJOURNMENT An unanimous vote, always.
You may contact staff writer Bill Rettew at firstname.lastname@example.org