Strategies for Managing Difficult Public Meetings and Hearings
December 3, 2020
Category: Legislative Body , Public Participation
From time to time, elected bodies are faced with conducting controversial, emotionally charged, meetings or public hearings where tensions are high and tempers sometimes flare. Such meetings can really test the members of the elected body and staff. But conflict and controversy can also make a positive contribution to your decision-making processes and many of their not-so-positive effects can be significantly reduced and managed by adopting a few tried and true meeting strategies. Here are some steps you can take before, during, and after difficult public meetings and public hearings to make them less stressful and more productive for everyone.
Before the Meeting
There are a number of things you can do before a difficult or emotionally charged meeting that can help to prevent or reduce unnecessary conflict or disruptions:
- Adopt Procedural Rules. Adopt and follow council or commission rules of procedure, including Robert’s Rules of Order. A well-managed meeting where the ground rules are understood going in can go a long way toward maintaining order and civility.
- Add Informal Educational Sessions. When you will be considering a controversial project or proposal, think about adding some informal educational sessions early in the process to provide ample notice, identify, and address initial concerns and to avoid any complaints that the governing body is trying to “ram through a decision” (which you may get anyway, but at least you can point to the additional meetings).
- Move the Issue to the Top of Your Agenda. If you know that a particular agenda item is likely to generate significant controversy, and a larger than normal audience, consider moving it up to the top of your agenda. Better not to make an already stirred-up crowd wait while you work through a series of routine business items.
- Provide Access to Information. Provide links to your meeting packet in advance of the meeting so everyone has the opportunity to view and consider the same material the governing body has received. Have some printed copies of key documents available at the meeting also.
- Offer Alternatives for Commenting. Invite comments by email or handwritten letters and acknowledge their receipt and entry into the record for those who are not comfortable with making comments at the meeting.
- Remote Participation Option. Consider the option of remote meeting attendance for those who can’t make the meeting in person. Until we are out of the woods with COVID-19, this will be the default meeting format.
- Plenty of Seating. Make sure adequate seating is available (post COVID-19). Consider moving to a larger venue if necessary.
- Greet Attendees. Have a staff member greet attendees at a table where they can sign up for public comment. This can create a more welcoming atmosphere for residents.
- Sign-up Sheet. A sign-up sheet will also be useful in getting a sense of who and how many intend to speak and to determine the order they will be speaking in.
- Check Your AV Equipment. Always run a pre-meeting check of all your audio-visual equipment to avoid any unnecessary delays.
During the Meeting
During your meeting, consider using the following steps to keep things running as smoothly as possible:
- Meeting Overview and Introduction. Begin by explaining the purpose of the meeting, the order of business, and what actions, if any, are expected at the conclusion of the meeting.
- Ground Rules. Include a separate statement specifically to explain the meeting’s ground rules, including the values and behaviors that everyone will be expected to adhere to (respecting others’ opinions, not interrupting, refraining from any personal attacks, etc.).
- Issue Briefing. Don’t assume that everyone is as up to speed as you on a given topic. Have staff prepare a brief overview and background presentation to help provide context, dispel rumors, and clarify understanding.
- Lead by Example. Your behavior towards other members of the governing body, staff, and the public should model the behavior that you expect from everyone attending the meeting.
- No Back and Forth Dialogue. Clarify that during the public comment portion of the meeting that the members of the governing body will only listen, but not engage in a back and forth dialogue. If a question comes up, the council can ask staff to look into the issue and report back.
- Give Speakers Your Full Attention. Give all speakers your full and undivided attention so they can see that you are listening to what they have to say. That means no cell phones, side conversations, or other distractions.
- Set Reasonable Time Limits. Establish a reasonable time limit for speakers and make sure it is applied consistently. A limit of 3 to 5 minutes is common. For public hearings, the governing body can limit the total numbers of pro and con speakers that can address a given issue, which encourages those who do speak to be more succinct.
- Explain Limits of Legal Authority. Clearly explain those instances when requests or demands are beyond the scope of local government authority. Your legal counsel can be helpful in these instances. No one gains from needless debates over positions that have no legal path forward.
- Come Prepared. Know your facts and be truthful. Credibility is your most important asset in responding to criticism and conflict.
- Take a Break. Take meeting breaks to ease tensions and regroup where appropriate.
- Dealing with Serious Disruptions. When the conduct of attendees at public meetings becomes too disruptive, governing bodies do have the authority to maintain order up to and including removal in certain circumstances. For more on this, see MRSC’s blog on this topic: When First Amendment Rights and Public Meetings Clash.
After the Meeting
After a difficult meeting (or any meeting really that involves a proposal or project that involves significant community impacts), consider following up with these actions:
- Summarize Meeting Outcomes. Post to your website and/or send out an email update summarizing the meeting’s purposes, objectives and outcomes.
- Respond to Questions or Other Issues That Could Not be Handled During the Meeting. Follow up with any commitments made during the meeting, such as having staff provide answers to questions that could not be answered during the meeting.
- Communicate Next Steps. Outline any planned next steps including expected milestones and a timetable for further actions.
- Use Email Lists for Further Outreach. Create an email list for those who want to receive updates regarding any future milestones and opportunities to be heard.
Controversy and conflict, while stressful, can also help to frame community issues more broadly and provide a greater variety of perspectives. This may be particularly true as local governments work to become more inclusive of groups whose voices may not have been heard as much in the past. Think of a diversity of perspectives and opinions as a source of community strength. Also, keep in mind that anger expressed in difficult meetings and hearings is most often directed at your position, not at you as an individual.
Providing a fair and complete hearing of issues at council or commission meetings assures that everyone's viewpoints are thoroughly considered in decision-making processes. How the governing body responds and reacts to public participation will have a direct impact on the level of community trust in local officials.
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.