Public meetings and hearings can serve many purposes. A public meeting could be a means to solicit feedback on proposed regulatory changes, allow for citizen responses to proposed changes, create awareness of an issue, or simply engaging public involvement (Jolley, 2007). Public organization leaders and local government ofﬁcials are often required to conduct public meetings for a variety of reasons as part of their duties. Public organizational leaders may have meetings every year while Boards of County Commissioners, School Boards, or Village Councils generally have regularly scheduled monthly or weekly meetings. Local government ofﬁcials may also voluntarily choose to seek public input in development of policy or legislation.
Some public meetings in Ohio are governed by The Open Meetings Act, also known as the Ohio Sunshine Law. Enacted in 1954, these laws provide guidance to public servants and government officials about their obligations, and to the public about their rights. The Open Meetings Act declares all meetings of a public body to be open to the public at all times, unless the subject matter is specifically an exception by law (Ohio Revised Code 121.22 A,C).
Planning for Public Meetings
Well planned and conducted meetings include many considerations and components. The steps and components should include:
- a clearly deﬁned purpose
- an agenda
- roles for organizers, facilitators. and participants.
The following information provides ideas for preparing for a public meeting.
Encouraging Public Participation
An effective public meeting will include a variety of citizens who have an interest in the outcome. Involving key stakeholders and a diverse participation ensures that relevant information is not overlooked. Diverse participation can also help legitimize the ﬁnal decisions or actions for the greater public.
When applicable, follow Ohio’s Sunshine Laws for hosting and promoting formal public meetings. Some meetings that fall under Ohio’s Sunshine Laws may require pre-event publicity. According to the Ohio Sunshine Laws manual, every public body must establish, by rule, a reasonable method for notifying the public in advance of its meetings. The notice rule must provide for “notice that is consistent and actually reaches the public.” For example, publication of meeting information in a newspaper is one method of noticing the public of meetings.
Consider the Meeting Space
While often overlooked, yet important to the success of a meeting, the meeting space should be carefully selected. While some routine public meetings are scheduled at public office spaces, some special-called meetings may have flexibility in the choice of meeting space. All meeting spaces should take care to be compliant with The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) accessibility requirements on public accommodations.
Meeting planners should identify an appropriate location and room arrangement. The arrangement most often recommended is either a semicircle or a U-shape because it allows participants to be face-to-face, and their attention can also be directed to the area where power points, ﬂipcharts, or other visuals are displayed. When possible, avoid elevated stages or platforms for meeting speakers. A key element of a public meeting is for participants to perceive the meeting space as “neutral” territory.
Develop an Agenda
Developing an agenda that focuses the time toward the meeting’s purpose and outcomes is vital to a public meeting. The agenda may be presented to the participants prior to the meeting or at its beginning. In preparing the draft agenda, the convener or facilitator of the meeting should focus on what, how, who, and when. The “what” of a meeting includes the issues to be discussed, the “how” includes the means or process through which the issues will be addressed, the “who” is the participant responsible for presenting or discussing the agenda item, and the “when” is where the issue or item is on the agenda and the amount of time each item will be allotted. Also important is a specific beginning and ending time for meetings.
Organizer Role in Conducting the Meeting
Public meetings should follow a set procedure or body of rules, ethics, and customs for governing the gathering known as parliamentary procedure. Also common are rules of order that may consist of guidelines written by the organization, often referred to as bylaws. Bylaws may also govern how often and when an organization meets.
The organizers and speakers should dress professionally for the occasion and appropriately to the local culture. Arrive early to set up the room, equipment, and handouts before participants arrive.
Be sure to greet, meet, and talk with participants as they arrive. Building rapport between meeting organizers and facilitators and participants can help attendees perceive the organizer as a person rather than a role. Relationship building among representative participants and meeting planners will help to build trust and conﬁdence.
At the onset of the meeting, the facilitator should provide appropriate ground rules. Examples might include:
- avoid talking while others are speaking
- attack the issue, not the person
- avoid personal attacks or accusations
- respect agreements about time
The use of ﬂipcharts can encourage active listening and also can provide a written record of comments and concerns voiced at the meeting.
Consider a Meeting Facilitator
A neutral or external facilitator might be engaged if a topic is considered potentially controversial. One of the advantages of an external facilitator is an ability to create an atmosphere of neutrality or non-bias. They can also bring new perspectives to the discussion and can implement a presentation and discussion process deemed fair by participants.
After the Meeting
If the meeting meets the requirements of the Ohio Sunshine Law, accurate public records must be maintained and available to the public. For any type of public meeting, participants should be able to access meeting minutes as soon as available. If additional meetings are required, identify a strategy for follow-up with participants. Materials that were shared or distributed should also be saved as records of the meeting. Be sure to provide answers to any questions that could not be directly answered or addressed at the meeting.
Public meetings are conducted in a variety of styles. They can provide options to engage residents in conversations on community needs and concerns. As an organizer, facilitator, or presenter it is essential to be prepared, professional, considerate of the culture of the audience, and to follow applicable public government laws or individual organizations’ bylaws and parliamentary procedure.
Original Authors: Jeff S. Sharp and Molly Bean Smith, Rural Sociology Program, and David B. Patton, Ohio State University Extension (Originally published in 2002).
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Ohio Revised Code 121.22 A,C. Retrieved from codes.ohio.gov/orc/121.22
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The County Commissioners Association of Ohio (CCAO) Ohio County Commissioners Handbook - Chapter Four: Commissioners Meetings (Organization, procedures, and records) February 2000. Retrieved from ccao.org/wp-content/uploads/HDBKCHAP004-2000.pdf
Yost, Dave. (2019). Ohio Sunshine Laws–An Open Government Resource Manual.