Local Government 113 – Participating in City Council Meetings

By Mike Barhorst

Barhorst

Sidney’s City Council regularly meets three times each month – the first, second and fourth Mondays.  The meetings begin at 6:30 p.m., and are held in Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall (201 West Poplar Street).

There are, of course, exceptions.  If there is a national holiday observed on a regularly scheduled meeting date, the meeting is moved to the following Tuesday, or another date that is convenient for councilmembers.  In December, Council traditionally meets just once to transact year-end business, although there have been occasions when a special meeting has had to be called to transact additional business not anticipated earlier in the month.

Although rarely called, another exception is a special meeting.  A special meeting of council can be called by the mayor or any four members of council.  Except in the case of an emergency, notice of a special meeting is made at least 24 hours in advance.  In the case of an emergency, the clerk notifies each councilmember, representatives of the media who have requested notification and posts a statement of the time, place and purpose of the special meeting at city hall.

Most emergency special meetings have been called in response to natural disasters.  During the Blizzard of 1978, for example, the city manager sent police vehicles to transport councilmembers to city hall for emergency meetings as the city struggled to recover from the storm.  For those too young to remember, in the aftermath of the storm there were huge drifts that in some cases, buried entire homes.  There were a number of people who were rescued by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, the Ohio National Guard and other first responders.  They were brought into Sidney from the surrounding countryside, as their homes were without heat and power in some cases, for more than two weeks.

The first meeting of the month is a workshop session, designed for councilmembers to be able to discuss topics in depth.  Public participation is not invited during workshop sessions.  However, the public is welcome to attend these meetings, and councilmembers always appreciate having residents in attendance.

During the meetings held on  the second and fourth Mondays of each month, public input is encouraged.  Citizens can address council about any topic not on the agenda near the beginning of each meeting.  In addition, those attending the meeting are asked for input during the meeting on each agenda item prior to council taking action on that item.

In fact, the city manager or a member of the staff will make a presentation about each agenda item after the city clerk has read the title of the legislation.  It is at that point that the presiding officer (usually the mayor) will ask first councilmembers and then those in the audience if they have any questions before council acts on the matter at hand.  City staff then attempts to answer any questions that have been raised.

After attending meetings, residents have commented that there are important items on which council votes about which there has been no discussion at the meeting.  For the casual observer, that may appear to be the case.  However, by the time most ordinances are scheduled for a vote, they have been on previous agendas at least twice.  Some items have been discussed far longer.  As a result, questions have been asked and answered much earlier in the legislative process, in effect, leaving nothing further to discuss prior to the vote being taken.

Meetings are held in accord with Robert’s Rules of Order and the rules of city council.  City council rules were first adopted in 1982, in large part due to the perceived need to further define the conduct expected from members of the public attending the meetings as well as the members of city council themselves.

I was serving on council at the time, and it is my clear recollection that the rules were established after a series of contentious meetings during which members of the public had to be repeatedly warned about their conduct.  The straw that broke the camel’s back followed shortly after when a young, newer member of council came to a meeting dressed in shorts, a tank top, and a motorcycle helmet.

Although then Mayor Gary Van Fossen sent the councilmember home to change clothes, the rules were soon adopted.  Although I was not in favor of the rules, I will readily admit that they have been helpful in the years since.  (For those who are interested in reading the Council rules, they can be found on the city’s website online (www.sidneyoh.com/PDF/Council/COUNCIL_RULES.pdf).

While councilmembers encourage citizens to attend and welcome the input of residents, those addressing council are expected to follow specific guidelines.  Those wishing to address council must be recognized by the chair.  Once recognized, the speaker must state their name and address clearly so the clerk can note the information.  This is the case even if the individual is well known.

Members of the audience are expected to conduct themselves respectfully.  The rules specifically state that members of the audience “shall not make unreasonable noises, offensively coarse utterances or displays, communicate unwarranted and grossly abusive language to others, insult, taunt or challenge others in such a manner that is likely to provoke a violent response, threaten harm, or conduct themselves in a violent or turbulent manner, or do anything which obstructs or interferes with the orderly conduct of the meeting.”

Fortunately, I cannot recall a single instance during my six terms as mayor when I’ve had to ask the sergeant-at-arms (generally the chief of police) to remove a guest from council chambers because they have violated the rules.  While I’ll talk more about public participation in a future column, I would offer the following suggestions: 1) let the city clerk know in advance you will be attending and your specific concern, especially if you would like an answer to your concern that evening – your specific concern may require research, something not possible during a council meeting; 2) if the problem is of a specific nature that does not have general concern within the community, you may be better resolving that issue with staff members and not taking time trying to resolve the matter at a council meeting; 3) remain respectful, even if you become frustrated.  You will eventually get an answer to your question, though it may not be an answer that you like.

In my next column, I’ll talk about the importance of citizen engagement, and offer some suggestions about how best to interact with appointed and elected officials.