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Rosenthal Hopes Public Meeting Training Becomes A Regular Thing

Published: June 08, 2019 at 08:00 am

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Several dozen elected and appointed local officials were joined by counterparts from other neighboring communities and those aspiring to some level of public service May 30 as Newtown hosted a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) workshop on “How to Run Legal and Effective Public Meetings.”

Led by attorney Kari Olson from the region firm Murtha Cullina, the nearly three-hour session was split between a primer for municipal officials on state Freedom of Information regulations and some guidance on the role that Robert’s Rules of Order play in maintaining public meeting decorum.

In introducing the session, First Selectman Dan Rosenthal mentioned several instances in recent months where questions about state FOI guidelines — or Robert’s Rules, as they are described — have come up. Following the session, Mr Rosenthal said he envisions Newtown serving as a location for more government official training, possibly as often as quarterly.

Part of the reason the first selectman helped arrange for this specific CCM training is because Newtown’s Charter stipulates that Robert’s Rules shall serve as the standards by which local meetings should be conducted.

Newtown, along with many other municipalities and government agencies, uses the provisions and guidelines set forth in this standard set of rules first published in 1876 by Henry M. Robert to run orderly meetings with maximum fairness to all members.

During the first half of the session, Ms Cullina covered ways local boards and commissions could avoid running afoul of the state’s Freedom of Information laws. She opened with an overview of legal requirements for public meetings and discussed how to write an agenda, the role of the presiding officer, how to engage any audience of citizens, how to properly call a meeting to order, requirements under the law for conducting the meeting, and managing the agenda, and she closed with some useful tips for maintaining order and public decorum.

Following a brief break, Ms Olson then drilled into specifics of Robert’s Rules of Order that are designed to help both new and experienced government officials understand logical and practical way to run a meeting, specifics in regard to making motions and amendments, how to consider actions, rules for debate, and she concluded with a set of definitions of parliamentary terms.

One of the scenarios that Ms Olson covered that seemed to come as a surprise to a number of local officials in the room was the revelation that any member of the public attending a meeting in which the corresponding commission or panel is discussing distributed materials, is entitled to copies of those materials, if requested.

“If somebody requests a copy, you have to give it to them,” Ms Olson said. “There was a case that one of my partners had that had that very issue. The commission was asked to stop and make copies of everything for one member of the public. They have a right to follow along.”

Ms Olson confided that she did not necessarily agree with that provision in every case, but she did suggest that in cases where printed materials were excessive, it could serve the chairperson well to simply pause the meeting and allow any member of the public to come up and review printed materials versus stopping the proceedings to try and make copies — which the requester could then be charged for.

On questioning by former Charter Revision Commissioner Deborra Zukowski, Ms Olson clarified what constituted a quorum, and that a meeting attended by half of an even numbered board could not be qualified as a quorum.

The presenter identified the difference between a meeting and a caucus, in which only members of the same political group are permitted exclusively to discuss strategy, even if that gathering would otherwise constitute a quorum. She identified the types of legal public meetings that could be held and the specifics about noticing and then providing post meeting motions (within 48 hours) and minutes (within seven days, except in the case of an emergency meeting).

Attorney Olson reviewed the definition and basis for executive sessions or secret meetings where a commission’s clerk, the press, and members of the public may be barred from attending.

Motions And More

During the second part of the training, Ms Olson provided a template for typical agendas, identified the various types of motions that could be entertained, and discussed how to handle those various motions. For example, she clarified that any motion must be seconded in order to be accepted for discussion, without exception, and if there is no second, the motion is void and the next item of business should occur.

“Motions are always addressed to and handled by the chairman,” Ms Olson said.

She explained the process for voting on motions, consent agendas, and the specifics of voting requirements, defined the process for amending a motion and changing votes, and clarified that a two-thirds vote in the affirmative could even suspend Robert’s Rules.

Ms Olson then covered dealing with disruptive or inappropriate behavior and the process for disciplining a fellow board member.

As the session closed, the presenter spent a few moments discussing the important role of alternates, and why it is critical they attend all meetings just like full board or commission members.

She explained that on any given occasion, regular members might be absent, and alternates would be required in order to continue the business of the meeting with a legal quorum. If alternates do not regularly attend all meetings, they will not have the historical knowledge in order to adequately fill in and conduct business.

Ms Olson said alternates should be rotated so each has an opportunity to constitute a quorum, versus having the same alternate member or members fill absences of full members.

“That’s a good policy to have because it’s not fair — it’s very hard to convince someone to be an alternate,” she said. “It’s even harder to have someone who is an alternate show up all the time if they’re not going to be seated. The point of having an alternate is in the case [where too many regular members are absent], there are alternates there who are knowledgeable about what’s pending, and who can step in.”

To view the current CCM calendar of training workshops, visit ccm-ct.org/municipal-training-events.

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