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Running Council Meetings Effectively

City councils can sometimes slip into dysfunction, and the disorder can cause lasting damage. Whether residents and businesses are seeing it in person, hearing about it or seeing it in the media, council dysfunction gives them the sense that their local government cannot handle the problems and needs of the community.

Many of the issues that can derail the work of council can be addressed by enforcing rules of procedure, and SC Code Sections 5-7-250 and 5-7-270 require all municipalities to adopt such rules by ordinance. Not only do rules of procedure promote order and efficiency in council proceedings, they also help to provide impartiality and fairness for all members of council. Rules of procedure allow all members of council to have an opportunity to have their voices heard during meetings.

Rules can cover many things:

  • how items are placed on an agenda,
  • amending motions,
  • the order in which motions are considered,
  • how people can appear before council to speak,
  • time limits on debate,
  • appeals of the presiding officer's rulings and
  • the conduct of councilmembers.

Councils adopt their own local procedures, which can be customized to fit local needs as long as they meet legal requirements. In addition, councils often adopt by reference Robert's Rules of Order to supplement local rules. This can create multiple levels of rules, so the order of application should always be:

  • state law,
  • local rules, and
  • Robert's Rules of Order, if adopted.

Waiting until there is a problem to adopt or enforce rules of procedure may be too late. Rules need to be clear, easy to understand, and most importantly, already in place when an issue arises. Officials should review their city's rules of procedure for clarity and simplicity. If they lack clarity, council should consider amending its rules so they are more effective.

The Municipal Association of SC offers a How to Conduct Effective Meetings handbook. The handbook digs into many issues of how to appropriately and effectively operate a meeting:

  • Presiding over meetings – Presiding officers need to be knowledgeable about rules, and be able to apply them consistently when running meetings both firmly and courteously.
  • Entering executive session – The SC Freedom of Information Act provides for specific instances in which a council can enter executive session. Before doing so, the council must vote in public to enter executive session, and the presiding officer must give the reason for entering executive session.
  • Participating in meetings – While rules adopted by council can be specific to that council, the guide offers some recommendations for councilmember actions that are valuable in any setting. For example, when making a motion, the motion should be stated affirmatively — in other words, describing something the council will do, rather than something it will not do. Councilmembers should avoid comment or discussion until after a motion is seconded by another councilmember and the presiding officer calls for discussion.

The guide also includes model rules of procedure that councils can either adopt or use as a starting point. The model rules appear as Appendix B in the guide.

Conducting meetings effectively is also a part of the curriculum of the SC Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Institute.