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How Much Should a Mayor Talk at Meetings?


March 1, 2012  by  Ann G. Macfarlane
Category:  Council-Commission Advisor

This Advisor column was originally published in February 2008.

One of the challenges that faces newly elected mayors is knowing how much they should speak at meetings. Many mayors are hard-charging individuals who are accustomed to influencing the course of events and are not shy about speaking their minds. It can be a challenge to adapt to the different requirements of running council meetings.

In a democratic system, the person who runs the meetings of a body of peers is not the boss. She is in charge of certain aspects of the meeting, such as making sure that the meeting is fair, and that everyone has an equal chance to speak. With regard to substance, though, she is the servant of the group. Her role is to help the group make up its mind, to assist the group, rather than to tell the group what to do.

Robert's Rules of Order, the standard procedural guide for most meetings in this country, recognizes the temptation that a gavel presents to the presider. (The members also can be tempted to give undue weight or influence to the presider.) Robert's specifies that ordinarily, the person running the meeting does not take part in debate at all. The presider has the right to debate and vote, but refrains from exercising that right in order to remain impartial.

A city council is a little different, because of its size. In a city council, the rules for "small boards" apply. (Generally a small board includes a dozen or fewer people.) Robert's states that in a small board, the presider may participate in debate.

My experience, however, is that a mayor who is willing and able to hold back will serve his council better than one who waxes on and gives his opinion freely. It is not easy to distill the best course of action for a city council from among the many differing options, facts, and opinions that must be considered. When a mayor speaks out at length, he becomes a factor in the debate. When he refrains and earnestly, genuinely seeks to learn the opinions of others, he is more of a facilitator. Best practice says that even in smaller boards, a presider who chooses this role will help his organization more than one who sees himself as a full-contact participant.

I recommend, therefore, that mayors speak and debate last, after everyone has had a chance. Besides making the mayor more impartial, this also allows her to sum up the debate, which can be critical in helping everyone see the big picture.

It is also essential that a city council follow the most-neglected rule in all of Robert's, the rule that no one may speak twice until everyone has had a chance to speak once. This includes the honorable mayor! By giving everyone a chance in turn, all voices are heard. The extroverts and old-timers are not allowed to dominate the situation, and a better decision can be made for the good of the city.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Ann G. Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane writes for MRSC as a Council Commission Advisor.

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments, and blogs regularly at www.jurassicparliament.com.

The views expressed in Advisor columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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