Thursday, September 3, 2020

Preparing and Executing Effective Virtual Meetings

Some city and town councils have moved their meetings to virtual formats because of the pandemic. Some boards, commissions and committees have also changed their meetings into virtual events. Virtual meetings create difficulties for conducting meetings — speakers muting and unmuting themselves, or participants trying to avoid talking over one another. 

These challenges can make the planning and preparation that go into meetings all the more important. The Municipal Association has a handbook, How to Conduct Effective Meetings, which can help with many of the aspects of preparing for and participating in meetings. 

For example, the handbook includes the importance of a council adopting rules of procedures, which is required by state law in SC Code Section 5-7-250(b). Using Roberts’s Rules of Order provides one way to satisfy the requirement. Even so, Robert’s Rules are not designed for a city or town council, so using them exclusively can create difficulties. The handbook contains a set of sample rules of order that councils can modify for local needs and then adopt. 

Another critical consideration is the process of establishing an agenda and publicly distributing it. The SC Freedom of Information Act requires public notification of meetings, with agendas, 24 hours in advance for all meetings where there will be a quorum of council, whether the meeting is in person or virtual. Once the agenda and agenda packet are complete, every councilmember needs to receive the agenda packet at relatively the same time well in advance of the meeting — for example, the weekend before the meeting. This allows councilmembers the critical time they need to familiarize themselves with material and ask staff questions as needed. 

The presiding officer's role in a council meeting, ordinarily the mayor, is critical to the process. The presiding officer needs to be familiar with the rules of order adopted by the city or town and work to facilitate the meeting both firmly and courteously. The person in this role should help make sure that only one councilmember speaks at a time, and that every voice on council is allowed to speak. The presiding officer should also ensure that residents who wish to make comments do so only at designated times. Presiding over meetings is one of the topics covered in the How to Conduct Effective Meetings handbook

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