Planning and Conducting Effective Public Meetings

CDFS-1555
Community Development
Date: 
12/31/2019
Gwynn Stewart, MS, Extension Educator, Community Development, Ohio State University Extension, Noble County
Cynthia Bond, Assistant Professor and Extension Educator, Community Development, Ohio State University Extension, Guernsey County

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.

Conclusion

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).

References

Carlson, C. (1999). Convening. (Eds.) L. Susskind, S. McKearnan, and J. Thomas-Larmer, pg. 169-191. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Chess, C., and K. Purcell. (1999). Public Participation and the Environment: Do We Know What Works? Environmental Science and Technology 33:2685-2692.

Coreil, Paul and Castille, Carrie. (April 2004). The Do’s and Don’ts of Working with Communities: Tips for Successful Community-Based Public Meetings. Journal of Extension 2ToT2

Jolley, G. Jason. (April 2007). Public Involvement Tools in Environmental Decision-Making: A Primer for Practitioners. Journal of Extension 2TOT3

Duram, L. A., and K. G. Brown. (1999). Assessing Public Participation in U.S. Watershed Planning Initiatives. Society and Natural Resources 12:455-467.

McComas, K. A. (2001). Public Meetings About Local Waste Management Problems: Comparing Participants to Nonparticipants. Environmental Management 27:135-147.

Ohio Revised Code 121.22 A,C. Retrieved from codes.ohio.gov/orc/121.22

Ricketts, Kristina G. and Place, Nick T. (April 2009). Making Communities More Viable: Four Essential Factors for Successful Community Leadership. Journal of Extension 2IAW2

Straus, D. A. (1999). Managing Meetings to Build Consensus. (Eds.) L. Susskind, S. McKearnan, and J. Thomas- Larmer, pg. 287-322. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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.

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