Successful meetings happen with leadership, organization
Friday, March 10, 2017 8:00 am
By Eddie Jones
AAC County Consultant
“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and will never achieve, its full potential that word would be ‘meetings.’” — Dave Barry
Through the years people have developed hundreds of jokes and one-liners about meetings and committees — primarily because so many meetings tend to run amuck. It doesn’t have to be that way. Meetings can and should accomplish the intended purpose. But it takes planning, organization and leadership to have a smooth, effective and successful meeting.
A few years ago I penned an article for County Lines called “Smooth, Effective Meetings” as a meeting guide for the chair, as well as other participants in county quorum court meetings. With a large turnover in county and district officials for the term that started January 2017, now is a good time to rehash some of that information — and to add a few additional thoughts.
Over the past few election cycles there has been a huge turnover in county elected officials. Beginning Jan. 1, Arkansas county government welcomed 11 new county clerks, 16 new county judges, five new county treasurers and 155 new justices of the peace. And, of course, there are many more who have only one or two terms under their belts. I mention these particular offices because they are the ones most involved in quorum court meetings.
If you’re like me, you have sat dumbfounded and appalled, or maybe embarrassed, while a meeting tumbled off a cliff into a deep ravine. You know what happened, even if the meeting participants don’t: stories, side issues, chitchat and lack of preparation overran the good intentions of those who were trying to accomplish something.
It may be that the chair and/or the participants were not properly prepared for the meeting. Maybe the meeting started with a clear goal, a real agenda and at least a majority of the participants prepared. But somehow it ended up a failure. Why? The reason is that a meeting can be led or misled from any chair in the room. Individual contributions, or the lack thereof, determine the net result produced in a public meeting — or in a meeting of any kind.
During my 36 years in county government work, I have attended hundreds of quorum court meetings, and I have chaired dozens of meetings in various capacities. I have seen it all — the good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s take a look at what it takes to have smooth, effective meetings. We are talking in particular about quorum court meetings or other county government public meetings. However, most of what we say will be applicable to almost any kind of meeting in which business is being conducted. We are going to be looking from both sides of the table. It takes not only a competent and prepared chair, but also participants that are prepared and ready to take care of business in a professional manner.
One of the most difficult tasks for an elected official is being called upon to run a public meeting, be it a county quorum court meeting, a committee thereof, or some other type of county government public meeting or hearing. In Arkansas you must understand not only the Open Meetings Law (Freedom of Information Laws ACA 25-19-101, et seq), but also your own rules of order. Many people are under the misconception that “Robert’s Rules of Order” are the mandatory rules of order in Arkansas county government. That is not so. Every quorum court in Arkansas is authorized under ACA 14-14-801(b)(12) and ACA 14-14-904(e) to provide for their own organization and management and to determine their own rules of procedure, except as otherwise provided by law. Most counties do find that “Robert’s Rules of Order” is a good starting point and an adequate default in the event that its own adopted rules of procedure do not address an issue. In that case, it is imperative that the county actually have a copy of “Robert’s Rules or Order” on hand to serve as a reference and guide.
According to Arkansas law, specifically ACA 14-14-904(d), the county judge is the presiding officer, or chair, of the quorum court without a vote but with the power of veto. However, in the absence of the county judge, a quorum of the justices by majority vote shall elect one of their number to preside or chair the meeting but without the power of veto. A justice retains the right to vote on a measure even though he or she is serving as chair. So, it behooves the county judge and each member of the quorum court to be prepared and ready to conduct a great meeting — smooth and effective.
The legalities of the Open Meetings Law and your own rules of procedure are not everything you need to know. There is a part of presiding over a meeting that is not in a law or rule. For lack of a better term it amounts to style. American Poet, Robert Frost defined style as “the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward.” Even the most competent elected official armed with a complete knowledge of the Open Meetings Law (FOIA) and “Robert’s Rules of Order” can find themselves on the verge of panic while trying to chair a meeting. One word of advice can aid in avoiding this public calamity: RESPECT. Let me further expand on the term “respect” by using an acrostic.
Responsibility — The chair is responsible for implementing the rules that have been established. Responsibility lies with the chair to clarify roles and rules, to follow the agenda, to be fair but firm, and to keep the meeting moving.
Ethics — Rightly or wrongly, the chair is always held to a higher standard than the other members of the body, and projecting the air of a higher ethical standard is crucial to a cooperative environment.
Succinct — Often less is more, and making comments and rulings in a direct and succinct manner helps avoid the sin of sermonizing to members of the body.
Predictability Principal — Prior proper planning prevents poor performance. A successful meeting does not just happen. Rather, it requires, above all, that the chair be prepared for what is to come.
Engage — The chair is responsible for engaging all of the stakeholders in any public meeting. Leaving any of the stakeholders out of the process is a recipe for discord and disaster.
Coordinate not Control — The proper goal of the chair is to coordinate the rules with the competing interest, not to control the outcome of the meeting. A controlling chair will invite stern and vocal opposition and impair the ability of the meeting to accomplish any of its goals.
Time — In short, starting a meeting late and wasting time during a meeting are both rude. It’s rude to your colleagues, citizens and staff. The chair has the primary responsibility to call the meeting to order on time and to make sure that the meeting moves forward in a timely manner. Don’t wait on the perpetual tardy. Suggest a new motto: 5 minutes early is the new on time. Start every meeting promptly, and people will soon realize that you mean what you say.
Following these suggestions will foster respect both for the chair and the body as a whole. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Men are respectable only as they respect.”
What if you’re a participant and not the chair — in this case a quorum court member not acting as chair? Here’s how to make sure your participation contributes to an effective meeting.
- Focus on the issue. Avoid stories, jokes, and unrelated topics. These things waste time, distract the attendees and sometimes mislead. Save the fun and trivia for social events, when it’s more appropriate and will be appreciated.
- Take a moment to organize your thoughts before speaking. Then express your idea simply, logically and concisely. People are more receptive to ideas they understand — plus long complex explanations bore people.
- Use positive comments in the meeting. Negative comments create defensive reactions or even retaliations that take people away from solutions. Negative comments also make you appear mean, uncooperative, weak, or even incompetent.
- Test your comments. Before speaking, ask yourself, “Does this contribute to an effective meeting?” If you sense it subtracts, keep your mouth shut.
- Respect others. Different views force us to think. After all, if we were all the same, they would need only one of us. So, accept what others say as being valid from their viewpoint. Work to understand why others are expressing ideas that you find disagreeable.
- Take a rest. If you notice that you are speaking more than anyone else in a meeting, stop and let others talk. You’re either dominating the meeting with monologues or conducting a conversation with a minority of the participants. In either case, you’re preventing the other attendees from participating.
These are but a few of the things you can do as a quorum court member to contribute to a productive meeting.
I want to discuss a few other things that I have not yet touched on. These tips are primarily for the chair of the meeting. But, remember that could be a member of the quorum court in the absence of the county judge.
- Summarize. After each agenda point, summarize the key decisions, opinions and actions. It’s your job to make sure those decisions and actions are clearly understood and that they are moving in the right direction to accomplish the meeting’s objectives. It is also a good idea, especially when there has been lengthy discussion on a complicated issue, for the chair to summarize with clarity the question being voted on.
- Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Hopefully, you’ll have done your research before the meeting starts, but there’s always a chance that someone will hit you with an issue you know nothing about. If this happens, remain calm. Use the old trick of repeating the question or using a phrase such as “that’s a very interesting point.” This gives you a few seconds to get your answer straight in your mind, reducing the possibility of stuttering or sounding unsure. If you don’t know the answer, admit it. Say, “I wasn’t aware of that particular issue, does anyone else here have any knowledge about it?” If nobody else speaks up, ask the questioner to see you after the meeting to give you some background. It could well be something important. Even if it’s not, you’ll look good in front of your audience.
- Thank your audience. Always thank attendees once the meeting is finished. It is common courtesy, and people appreciate it.
Here is something else that is very important — keeping a good and accurate record of the meeting. We call it “taking minutes.” It’s a boring job, but someone’s got to do it. Under Arkansas law the secretary of the quorum court is the county clerk unless the court, through ordinance, decides to hire someone else from the staff of either the county clerk or the county judge [ACA 14-14-902(a)(1)(2)(3)(A)(B)(C)].
Taking minutes may not be the most glamorous job in the world, but it’s absolutely necessary to avoid conflict and mixed messages later on. Here’s how to produce a good set of minutes.Minutes need to be:
- Accurate. They must be a true record of what occurred. That means no drifting off during finer points of discussion.
- Clear and unambiguous. Minutes cannot be open to interpretation or discussion. Otherwise, they’re pointless.
- Consistently structured. Decide on a structure (bullet points or numbers are the most common) and stick to it. Your minutes will be a lot easier to read, and they will look a lot more professional.
- Brief. You should summarize discussions and decisions rather than attempt to get them down verbatim.
It’s also vital that whomever takes the minutes understands the subject. A confused note taker will produce confused minutes. If something is not clear, ask for clarification from the speaker or the chair. It could save a lot of time, confusion or disagreement later on.
The AAC has a Justice of the Peace Procedural Manual under the “Publications” tab on its website. The manual contains a Procedural Guide for Arkansas County Quorum Court Meetings, found in Chapter 6. This is recommended reading and study for every quorum court justice and every county judge.
I leave you with this last thought for a smooth and effective public meeting. The “attitude” and “temper” should be checked at the door. Arthur Gordon relates this personal story, “At a turbulent meeting once I lost my temper and said some harsh and sarcastic things. The proposal I was supporting was promptly defeated. My father who was there, said nothing, but that night, on my pillow I found a marked passage from Aristotle: ‘Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.’”