Our government is based on being open and representative from the Federal government down to and including the smallest municipality. All of the business with some exceptions is conducted in public and it can be good, bad or ugly but it is debated and decisions are or should be reached publicly. People normally have the ability at a local level to also offer their input if they desire at appropriate times in a meeting. I have been on both sides of the table so to speak as a councilman and also as a citizen having attended public meetings for over a decade and I would just like to share my opinions on the process.
First, let me start off by saying most meetings are run according to Robert's Rules of Order although that can be suspended or ignored if the board or council makes the proper directive during a meeting. This almost never happens, but what that means is all business is transacted by someone making a motion, another seconding the motion and then the floor is opened for discussion relevant to the topic at hand.
Certain agenda items are discussed though in what most bodies call an "executive session" which means they close the doors to the public and talk about it in private. This session is required since it is illegal if not unethical for a majority of a board to be in the same place without public notice and discuss business in private. Items supposed to be discussed behind closed doors include pending litigation, personnel issues, real estate transactions and labor negotiations.
As a former elected official, I know it can be sometimes be difficult to stick to the matter at hand, but almost all officials do their best to adhere to this rule known as the Sunshine Law. That does not mean however that officials need to debate every little detail of every piece of business at a public meeting and if the meeting is properly run, there is an opportunity for citizens to speak up and voice their concerns or contributions to the discussion before a ruling is made.
Sometimes the discussion needs more information or someone would like more time to consider the idea so they are allowed to "table" the issue. The term "table" is short for "lay on the table" which itself means to put the item at hand to the side or literally lay it down and move on to other business. It is possible though I rarely see it to reverse the motion and take something off the table to discuss it later in the meeting. Also, many meetings have a section that allows officials to speak their piece so a topic could recur in that format in same meeting.
With regard to passing new rules for the public governed by the officials, there is a protocol. An ordinance must be drafted, written and debated in public. Some ordinances also require a public hearing to receive input from the people before a final decision is made. Many times officials will hold hearings just to receive input from the public whether it is required or not. The hearings, the meetings and the adoption of the ordinance all must be advertised in the legal section of the local newspaper to announce that such an action is to take place and when it will occur.
Those are the basic tenets of local administration and a condensed idea of the responsibilities of officials to the public with regard to how meetings work. As such, I find it amusing or sometimes irritating that some people want to believe that the things are done hush-hush and sprung on them at the last moment.
It is our responsibility to keep abreast on what our local officials are doing. It is not their job to hold our hand and inform us personally. To stand in front of most boards and accuse them either passively or directly of hiding an ordinance is dumb, yet it happens time and again. It takes months and sometimes years to get an ordinance to the point of passage a majority of the time and that discussion takes place in public meetings that are advertised as required by law. To even suggest an official board is "springing" a new regulation on its populace is quite inane.
Usually people who make those comments cannot be bothered to attend a meeting on a regular basis to keep abreast of what is occurring in their local government until they discover it affects them. Many times the effect is negative which is what brings them to the meeting in the first place. To accuse officials of "pulling a fast one" is ridiculous. Most officials drum something to death before anything is passed.
These people are also the ones that tend to come to a meeting, speak their peace and then leave with little regard for what might take place later in the meeting. While some discussions may end early in the meeting, there is always a chance the issue could recur later. To those people who left early, this could be viewed as the board's attempt at dodging them. It almost never is though. Sometimes an item later in the meeting circles back to public comment and at that point the board may be inclined to act upon it rather than when we the public bring up the topic during the time we are allowed to speak.
In a nutshell, as citizens we should make it our business to attend meetings from beginning to end and listen to everything that happens so we can stay informed. To do less, shirks our responsibility.
Til next time…