How to run a meeting — the right way

By Eddie A. Jones, AAC Consultant

Nothing like the announcement of a “meeting” to get most people in a bad mood. The words “meeting” and “fun” go together like cheese and Nutella. When I was a boy, my mom wore a mood ring. When she was in a good mood it turned blue. In a bad mood, it left a big red mark on my forehead. I didn’t know it then, but apparently, she attended a lot of meetings.

Why have a meeting anyway? A great many important matters are quite satisfactorily conducted by a single individual who consults nobody. A great many more are resolved by a letter, a memo, a phone call, or a simple conversation between two people. Sometimes a few minutes spent with several people separately is more effective and productive than a meeting with them all together which can last who knows how long. Certainly a great many meetings waste a great deal of everyone’s time and seem to be held for historical rather than practical reasons.

However, county government is a public entity — a political subdivision of the state for the more convenient administration of justice and the exercise of local legislative authority related to county affairs [§ 14-14-101]. Being a representative government, we must conduct our business in the open. The residents of our counties have the legal and moral right to know how their local government business is being conducted and how their tax money is being spent.

The legislative power of county government is vested in the quorum court of each county, subject to the limitations imposed by the Arkansas Constitution and by state law. Each county quorum court is made up of 9, 11, 13, or 15 members depending on the population of the county. The county judge, as the chief executive officer of the county, serves as the presiding officer of the quorum court without a vote but with the power of veto.

The quorum court is required by state law to meet no less than one time a month. The court’s organizational ordinance must establish the regular monthly meeting date, time and location. This ordinance may also provide for additional monthly meetings; regular committee meetings; and should declare the court’s rules of procedure, whether by Robert’s Rules of Order or otherwise. Most county quorum courts use Robert’s Rules of Order as their guide.

Henry Martyn Robert was an engineering officer in the Army. One day he was asked to preside over a meeting and he realized he didn’t know how. But, he tried to run the meeting anyway and before it was over he was humiliated with embarrassment. With that bad experience under his belt, he decided he would learn all he could about parliamentary procedure so he would never experience that situation again. What he found was a lot of chaos about how to run a meeting.

Everywhere he went, he found people with differing ideas of how meetings should be conducted, based primarily on what they had become accustomed to. Every one of us has probably been guilty of saying something like, “But, that’s how we’ve always done it.”

Mr. Robert decided he would establish one standard procedure and try to make a little order out of what he had seen, which was a procedural nightmare. We know that standard as Robert’s Rules of Order, which most Arkansas quorum courts use — or at least say they do. The original version was published in 1915. Today you can find the 12th revision available in most bookstores and online.

I encourage all county judges; all quorum court members — who are called justices of the peace; all county clerks as the secretary to the quorum court; all county attorneys, and any other personnel employed by the quorum court to have a good understanding of Robert’s Rules of Order — at least the basics. You should also know the types of motions such as a privileged motion; a subsidiary motion; a main motion; and an incidental motion. You should know the purpose of each type of motion. And whether a second is required; whether it is debatable or amendable; and what vote count is required — majority present, majority of full court, 2/3, none, or chair rules.

Another source of material for quorum court meetings and proceedings is found in state law. The county judge and justices in particular should practically memorize or keep very handy Title 14, Chapter 14, and Subchapter 9 of the Arkansas Code, which covers the legislative authority vested in the quorum court, along with the administration and general procedures required of Arkansas quorum courts. If anything in state law conflicts with Robert’s Rules of Order, then state law prevails.

Robert’s Rules contains some basic rules that are meant to make it fairly easy to run a meeting and move the agenda along. Let’s look at a few of those basic rules as outlined by a publication of the National Association of Counties (NACo) and consign them to an Arkansas County Quorum Court meeting.

The Chair — All quorum court meetings are facilitated by a chairperson who is responsible for making sure the meeting is conducted smoothly and fairly. The county judge is the chairperson, or as state law calls it, the presiding officer of the quorum court with no vote but with veto power [Amendment 55, § 3; § 14-14-904(d)(1)(A); § 14-14-1101(a)(1)]. In the absence of the county judge, a quorum of the justices by majority vote elects one of their number to preside but without the power to veto [§ 14-14-904(d)(1)(B)]. The presiding officer is impartial during all debate. The presiding officer does not have final decision-making authority. The meeting participants — the justices of the peace — have this authority.

Main Motion — The basis of discussion at a meeting is a motion. A motion is put forward by a quorum court member for the purpose of focusing the discussion. Each main motion must have a “mover” — the person who makes the motion — and a “seconder” who shows that there is some support for the motion. When a motion is put on the floor for discussion, the discussion must focus on the substance of the current motion. All other discussion is out of order and not to be allowed. Another motion cannot be introduced while there is a motion on the floor.

Order — It is important that meeting participants — justices of the peace — are acknowledged in order. Once a motion has been introduced, it is the presiding officer’s responsibility to maintain a list of speakers to manage discussion in an orderly manner. The participant who seconds the motion is always given an opportunity to speak after the mover. A member does not get a second chance to speak until all members of the court who want to speak on the motion have had an opportunity to do so.

Amendments — A person who legally has the floor can amend the main motion currently being debated. An amendment is another motion that is used to change by adding, subtracting or completely changing the main motion under discussion. When the amendment has been moved and seconded, all subsequent discussion must be on the substance of the current amendment. An amendment to a motion can be amended once. An amendment can be passed by a simple majority. If an amendment is passed, defeated or withdrawn, the discussion goes back to the main motion on the floor with comments based on whether the amendment passed.

Point of Order — If a quorum court member believes that the meeting is progressing outside of the rules of order, he or she can raise a “point of order.” When raising a point of order, the person states what rule or order has been violated or not enforced by the chairperson. A point of order can be used to interrupt a speaker. The chairperson has the responsibility of determining if the point is valid. A point of order cannot be used to comment on a motion out of turn.

Point of Privilege — A point of privilege can be used to interrupt a speaker. Any member of the court who feels that his or her rights have been infringed upon or violated may bring this point by simply stating their problem. Privilege involves the comfort or accessibility of the meeting participant and can include such things as can’t hear, too noisy, unclear copies, etc. Or it could be more personal actions such as misquotes, misinterpretations or insults. The presiding officer has the responsibility of determining if the point is valid.

Challenge the Chair — If a meeting participant feels that his/her point of order or point of privilege was ruled on unfairly by the chairperson, a challenge can be made to the chairperson. The chairperson then can ask for a motion to uphold the chair’s decision and a vote is taken. The vote by the full court will decide whether the presiding officer’s action on the point was valid.

Point of Information — A point of information is a question raised by a member of the quorum court while another has the floor. The question can be raised, but the person who has the floor may refuse the question. The chairperson asks the speaker if he or she wants to entertain the question when asked. The speaker can refuse. A point of information is only a question and cannot be used to speak out of turn, harass a speaker or disrupt the flow of the meeting.

Table — If a quorum court member feels that the decision and vote on a motion needs to be delayed for whatever reason, that member can move to “table” the motion. A meeting participant must be recognized by the chairperson in order to table a motion and cannot request this action at the end of a speech. Generally a specific time limit is mentioned when tabling the motion so as not to leave the motion dangling. A motion to table requires a simple majority vote. The discussion allowed after a vote to table can only be about the length of the tabling.

Calling the Question – If a member of the court thinks that additional discussion or debate will be unproductive, he or she may “call the question,” which can end discussion or debate. If no other quorum court members object, the meeting proceeds to the motion. If there is an objection, the participants vote on whether to end the debate. A two-thirds majority vote is required and no debate is allowed. If the “calling the question” is passed, a vote on the main motion is taken with no additional discussion or debate.

Suspension of the Rules — Any motion for suspension of the rules must have a two-thirds majority of the full number on the court to succeed. This motion is used so that meeting participants can do something in violation of the normal rules. In county government it is most used to subvert the rule of reading an ordinance or an amendment to an ordinance on three different meeting days. There is no debate allowed. This motion cannot be amended and cannot be reconsidered at the same meeting.

Adjourn — A motion to adjourn takes precedence over all other motions, except a motion to fix the time to adjourn. This motion cannot be debated or amended, nor can a vote to adjourn be reconsidered. A motion to adjourn cannot be made when a speaker has the floor, or when a vote is being conducted. This motion does need a second and takes a majority vote to pass. If a majority does not vote in favor, the meeting continues.

These are just a few of the basic rules you need to know about the actual conduction and participation of a meeting. There is so much to know, but you asked to be county judge or a justice of the peace. No one should ask to be elected to an office if they don’t intend to spend the time to properly learn all the functions of the job. Every county judge and quorum court member should own or have available to them the following:

Robert’s Rules of Order or the rules adopted by your court;

Procedural Guide for Arkansas County Quorum Court Meetings by the University of Arkansas, Division of Community Affairs, Division of Continuing Education and the Association of Arkansas Counties; and

Title 14 of the Arkansas Code Annotated — especially Chapter 14. The Arkansas County Compliance Guide available through the Association of Arkansas Counties is a good source for this and it contains much more than Title 14.

Many other things are involved in running a meeting the right way. Like the agenda. The agenda may be the most important piece of paper at the meeting. Properly drawn up, it has the power of speeding and clarifying a meeting that very few people understand or harness. The primary fault is to make the agenda unnecessarily brief and vague. For example, the phrase “county budget” does not tell much, whereas the longer explanation “to discuss the proposal for reduction of the 2020 county budget now that revenues are known to be less than projected” helps all court members to form some views or even to look up facts and figures in advance.

The presiding officer should not be afraid of a long agenda, provided that the length is the result of his or her analyzing and defining each item more closely, rather than adding more items than the meeting can reasonably consider in the time allowed. The chair should also bear in mind the useful device of heading each item “For information,” “For discussion,” or “For decision” so that members of the quorum court know where they are trying to get to.

The order of items on the agenda is important. The early part of a meeting tends to be more lively and creative than the end of it, so if an item needs mental energy, bright ideas, and clear heads, it may be better to put it high up on the list. Equally, if there is one item of great interest and concern it may be a good idea to hold it back for a while and get some other useful work done first. Then the star item can be introduced to carry the meeting over the attention lag that sets in after the first 20 to 30 minutes of the meeting.

Some items unite the meeting in a common front while others may divide members. The presiding officer may want to start with unity before entering into division, or he or she may prefer the other way around. The point is to be aware of the choice and to make it consciously, because it is apt to make a difference to the whole atmosphere of the meeting. It is almost always a good idea to find a unifying item with which to end the meeting.

All items should be thought of and thought about in advance if they are to be usefully discussed. Listing “Any other business” on the agenda is an invitation to waste time. This does not preclude the presiding officer’s announcing an extra agenda item at a meeting if something really urgent and unforeseen crops up or is suggested to him or her by a court member, provided it is fairly simple and straightforward.

If the chairperson is to make sure that the meeting achieves valuable objectives, he or she will be more effective seeing their self as the servant of the group rather than as its master. The role then becomes that of assisting the court toward the best conclusion or decision in the most efficient manner possible: to interpret and clarify; to move the discussion forward; and to bring it to a resolution that everyone understands and accepts as being the will of the meeting — even if some individual members do not necessarily agree with it.

The presiding officer’s true source of authority with members of the quorum court is the strength of his or her perceived commitment to their combined objective and his or her skill and efficiency in helping and guiding them to its achievement. Just as the driver of a car has two tasks — to follow the route and to manage the vehicle, so the chairperson’s job can be divided into two corresponding tasks — dealing with the subject or subjects and dealing with the people.

At the end of the discussion of each agenda item, the presiding officer should give a brief and clear summary of what has been agreed on. This can act as the dictation of the actual minutes. It serves not merely to put the item on record, but also to help the court realize that something worthwhile has been achieved. If the summary involves action by a member of the meeting, he or she should be asked to confirm their acceptance of the summary.

Part of dealing with the people is starting the meeting on time. There is only one way to ensure that a meeting starts on time, and that is to start it on time. Latecomers who find that the meeting has begun without them soon learn the lesson. The alternative is that the prompt and punctual members will soon realize that a meeting never starts until 10 minutes after the scheduled time, and they will also learn the lesson. Start the meeting on time.

When you close the meeting, close it on a note of achievement. Even if the final item was contentious or left unresolved, you can refer to an earlier item that was well resolved as you close the meeting and thank the court for their work and service.

The need for meetings of the quorum courts of Arkansas is clearly something more positive than just a legacy from our past. We are a representative government, therefore local legislation; policy; and spending authority is governed by a group representing the residents of each county. All power is not vested in one person. These meetings are necessary, not just because the law mandates them, but because county government is a very important level of government, and decisions must be made in a corporate manner in a representative government.

Without elaborating I’ll summarize with a few tips for conducting concise, highly effective quorum court meetings:

Come prepared;

Encourage participation;

Stay on schedule;

Wrap up thoroughly; and

Always — both the presiding officer and court members — remain civil!

Civility is the way we treat each other with respect, even when we disagree. Even though disagreement and confrontation play a role in government and politics, the issue is how that disagreement is expressed. The key is to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of proposed solutions to county problems and issues, not to engage in personal attacks against those who favor different solutions.

I have been in Quorum Court meetings where civility was not present. That should not be. The presiding officer should never be put in the position to say, “Is there a second to Ted’s motion to ignore Mike’s ideas?” Run a meeting and participate in a meeting the right way.

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