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More Sage Advice for Councils and Commissions


MRSC has been fortunate to have so many generous Council/Commission, HR, Finance, Planning, and Open Government Advisors over the years who have been willing to share their time and expertise writing columns filled with insightful analysis and sage advice for Washington local government officials and staff. Their columns are  featured on our website’s home page, in our e-newsletters, and on their respective Advisor group archive pages.

One of my favorites was written in 2008 by Carl Neu, a long-time MRSC Council/Commission Advisor. The title “Why Do Our Meetings Take So Long?” might lead you to believe that Carl is offering tips on how to run council or commission meetings more efficiently. But his advice goes much further than the mere mechanics of efficiently run meetings. In fact, in answering the question posed in the title of his column, Carl provides a valuable framework for policy development and decision making that all councils and commissions would do well to consider.  

Carl observes that there are usually three main reasons for meetings that go on too long:

  1. Lack of a solid strategic base or policy framework that enables councils to have the “long-term-comprehensive” perspective necessary to make the rational and disciplined incremental decisions required to dispose of most items on a typical regular city council meeting agenda.
  2. Councils not operating in the proper council arena (venue) or meeting format to set sound policy or make decisions in a reasoned manner.
  3. People (council members and citizens) seeing council meetings as community kaffee klatches where council and citizens engage in endless unfocused conversation, feeling this is the way to represent people’s interests or concerns, make decisions, and “run” the city.

His first point is critical—councils and commissions that lack a solid “framework of strategic perspectives and policies” are at a disadvantage right from the start. Before they can even begin to deal with the many tactical and incremental decisions that are presented to them as community leaders and decision makers, every council and commission  should have in place a strategic base comprised of elements like agreed core values, a shared community vision, long-term goals and priorities, master plans, and clear performance objectives. He illustrates the concept with a “Governance Iceberg” diagram in which incremental decision making, often the most visible component of council/commission activity, is seen as comprising a relatively small proportion of a council/commission’s leadership role, and a strategic base which underpins this component, representing 90% of the council/commission’s ability to lead and govern well. He notes, “[i]n the absence of the strategic base, councils drift into foundering and protracting discussions in search of a rationale for making a decision about the issue before them.”

His second point focuses on the need to understand and make strategic use of the various settings and meeting formats that are available to achieve specific ends. He identifies four distinct council-staff arenas: (1) Goal-setting (retreats); (2) Exploration and analysis (study sessions); (3) Disposition/legislation (regular public meetings where votes occur); and (4) Community relations (interactions with constituencies and other agencies). He then offers a useful matrix setting forth the purpose, typical setting, focus, and key characteristics of each meeting arena. The key is to choose the setting and meeting types that have the “characteristics and conditions necessary to enable council to ‘act, think, and interact’ in a manner essential to fulfilling the task before it effectively.” For example, while council/commission study sessions are open to the public, they are not generally designed to encourage participation by citizens who might be in attendance. Members of the public have opportunities to weigh in during the public comment portions of regular council/commission meetings or during a public hearing.

Lastly, he warns against an approach that views council/commission meetings as “community kaffee klatches” where “everyone is allowed to state and profess their views, opinions and predilections to the point of exhaustion in hopes that a gem of a decision will emerge.” This kind of approach virtually guarantees that your meetings will be too long and most likely unproductive.

Carl’s bottom line prescription for meetings that take too long is for councils and commissions to roll up their sleeves and get busy doing the hard, but rewarding, work of establishing that critical framework of strategic perspectives and policies. In the long run, your council/commission will be in a much better position to respond to the latest routine or controversial item of new business that finds its way onto your next meeting’s agenda. Second, be aware of the need to operate in the proper council arena for the specific task at hand. Each has a role to play in supporting the council/commission’s efforts to not only be more efficient but to think and act more strategically. Finally, save the kaffee klatches for the council/commission’s informal outreach activities where the nature of the event is to have a more free flowing exchange of views. This is not the way you want to run your regular council/commission meetings.

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.

Photo of Byron Katsuyama

About Byron Katsuyama

Byron retired from MRSC in 2021. He wrote about forms of government, strategic planning, performance measurement, emerging issues, and general local government management.