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Setting the Agenda: Less Control, More Cooperation

Setting the Agenda: Less Control, More Cooperation

Meeting agendas make everyone’s life easier. They help the presiding officer manage meetings, they help members of the governing body prepare to have an informed discussion before being asked to decide something, and they inform the public about upcoming meeting topics. However, agencies sometimes find themselves in conflict over who controls the selection of items to be placed on the agenda. This conflict is often related to whether the item requires staff time and resources.

In this blog I suggest that agencies can help resolve conflicts around agenda management by remembering four ground rules:

  1. the meeting belongs to the governing body, and not to the agency executive;
  2. the meeting belongs to the governing body as a whole, and not to one individual member (even if that individual member is the presiding officer),
  3. an individual member can request, but only a majority of the governing body can direct, and,
  4. if a new agenda item requires unplanned staff time or resources, then the agency will need to figure out how to allocate those resources.

Before the Meeting

There is no state law directing how the agenda is prepared or modified. RCW 42.30.077 only requires that agendas be made publicly available. So, every agency’s rules can be tailored to its specific needs. One constant is that the clerk is an integral part of this process.

Benton County has delegated preparation of its agenda to its county administrator, and the chair may (but is not required to) review the agenda before it is finalized. In Clallam County, items are submitted to the clerk, who prepares a proposed agenda for the county administrator and the board to review. Any commissioner may submit an item, and the board chair approves the final agenda. In King County, matters are submitted to the clerk by a specific deadline, but this deadline can also be waived by the chair of the council.
In some mayor-council cities and towns, such as Davenport, the mayor is involved in the preparation of the agenda. Mukilteo uses a planning committee consisting of the mayor, council president, and city administrator to prepare the agenda.

In council-manager cities, the city manager is involved in preparation of the agenda. In Sequim, the clerk and city manager prepare the draft agenda but it is approved by the mayor and deputy mayor. The Puyallup city manager prepares the council’s draft agenda. Two or more councilmembers can request an item be added to the preliminary agenda and council (as a whole) will vote during the meeting on whether to add these items.

For most special-purpose districts, district staff will prepare the preliminary agenda to be approved by the board chair.

During the Meeting

MRSC is often asked what to do when the presiding officer will not include a matter on the agenda. In that case, members of the governing body can ask for something to be added to the agenda during the meeting. Some agencies ask at the beginning of the meeting if there are any proposed modifications to the published/preliminary agenda. Other agencies allow new matters to be brought up during the part of the agenda set aside for comments by members of the governing body. Puyallup requires at least two councilmembers to ask for something to be added to a preliminary agenda. In Sequim, “[t]he Presiding Officer, three (3) Council members, a majority of the Council members present, or the City Manager may introduce a new item to the agenda at a meeting.”

Finally, a member of a governing body can always move to bring a matter before the body. For example, a member can ask for a future report and discussion on comparable salaries and benefits. If the other members don’t respond to this request that member may think the request has been approved. In that case it helps to remember that one member cannot give direction — only the body as a whole can.

However, a formal roll-call vote is not required on every action; some items can be approved by consensus if it is clearly reflected in the minutes. The presiding officer should ask the rest of the members if they all agree. (The clerk or agency attorney may tactfully remind the presiding officer that it’s not clear for purposes of the minutes if the body has approved this request). If there is not clear agreement, the presiding officer should ask the member requesting a new item to make a motion to add this item to the current meeting agenda or to a future agenda. If the motion is not seconded, or if the vote to approve the proposal fails, the governing body can move to the next item of business.

Other Considerations

A governing body can add a topic to its agenda and discuss it during a special meeting but RCW 42.30.080(3) prohibits “final disposition” of any matter not on the published agenda.

Also, consider the effect that adding a new matter may have on staff resources. Many agencies establish workplans to guide staff time and the governing body’s workload. Some agencies create a “parking lot” where ideas can be scheduled for review as time and resources allow. Others require the agency executive provide an estimate of the staff resources needed before an item is added to an agenda.

Here’s where cooperation and understanding come in — staff must be flexible enough to be able to add new projects to their workload if that is the decision of the governing body, and members of the governing body must be understanding when told that their new project may delay the previously-approved work program or time spent to research the new agenda item may require significant staff resources. Each group will find its own balance.

Finally, even if the governing body as a whole chooses not to address an individual councilmember’s or commissioner’s request, a cooperative agenda-setting process will identify issues that are important to that individual, allowing the agency executive and staff time to allocate appropriate resources to work with that individual.

This is just a quick review for a complex issue. MRSC has previously written about this in our April 2021 blog post on Roles and Responsibilities: Questions and Answers and in our January 2019 blog post, Balance of Power Struggles in City Government Redux. And you can find more information on these MRSC topic pages:

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.

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About Steve Gross

Steve Gross joined MRSC as a Legal Consultant in January 2020.

Steve has worked in municipal law and government for over 20 years as an Assistant City Attorney for Lynnwood, Seattle, Tacoma, and Auburn, and as the City Attorney for Port Townsend and Auburn. He also has been a legal policy advisor for the Pierce County Council and has worked in contract administration.