Avoiding common challenges during council meeting

There are many challenges elected officials face during council meetings. Knowing how to avoid or resolve these situations is extremely important to being an effective mayor or councilmember.

Listed below are some of the most common challenges related to the Freedom of Information Act.

Executive session

Councils often face criticism for their use of executive or “closed door” sessions. State law requires that every meeting be open to the public with five specific exceptions:

  • the discussion of personnel issues relative to the employment, appointment, compensation or disciplinary action of an employee;

  • the discussion of contractual negotiations, discussions of the sale or purchase of property, or the receipt of legal advice;

  • discussion about security personnel;

  • investigative developments or allegations of criminal misconduct; and

  • economic development discussions regarding a potential business or industry or expansion of existing businesses or industries.

Before going into executive session, the council must vote, in open session, to do so and state the specific purpose and open meeting exception for the closed door meeting. 

Councils often make ambiguous motions which state that council is going into executive session “for the discussion of certain personnel, legal or contractual matters” or to discuss “economic development.” Such broad motions fail to establish that the executive session complies with one or more of the open meeting exemptions in state law and may subject the council to objections from the public and/or media. 

Councils must be as specific as possible when stating the reason for the session without compromising the issue. The motion to enter executive session should be expanded to be more specific such as “to go into executive session to discuss applications for employment within public” or “to discuss negotiation of a contract and receipt of legal advice related to a building project.”

Another problem councils commonly encounter while in executive session is members deciding that it is an opportunity to discuss issues that were not specifically included in the motion to enter executive session. 

Such discussions are illegal. If someone begins discussing an unauthorized topic, it is up to the other members to discourage and break off the additional discussions. Council should also avoid polling its members while in executive session on the issues being discussed. No votes may be taken in executive session except to adjourn.

Agenda predicaments

Who decides what items are placed on meeting agendas is a question often debated by councilmembers. Clear rules of procedure or order can avoid this debate. The rules should specify who is in charge of preparing the agenda, the process for selecting agenda items, and how the agenda is amended.

Presiding officer quandaries

During council meetings, the mayor typically serves as the presiding office. As such, the mayor should ensure the meeting progresses in an orderly manner as outlined on the agenda and that each councilmember has an opportunity to participate equally. In the council and council-manager forms of government, the mayor presides over the meetings by tradition. In the mayor-council form, state law empowers the mayor to serve as the presiding officer.

“Is it a committee or council meeting” conundrum

If councils operate under a committee system, the municipality must post a written meeting notice 24 hours in advance of a committee meeting. The number of appointed committee members must be limited to less than a quorum of the total council (councilmembers and mayor). Only the members of the municipal council appointed to the committee may sit and participate in discussions of the matters before the committee.

If a councilmember not appointed to the committee wants to attend the committee meeting, he must limit his participation to the same level given to members of the general public. He should refrain from participating in the committee meeting because the committee matters will come before the full council at a later date. The nonmember should refrain from sitting with the committee members. A higher level of participation results in a quorum of council actively taking part in the committee meeting. This would require providing public notice as a council meeting not a committee meeting.

A municipality’s rules of order/procedure, as allowed by state law, can address most of the above scenarios. The rules should be reviewed periodically to ensure each councilmember understands the rules and abides by them.