Ten Tips to Tame Unruly Behavior at Council Meetings

On the best nights, council meetings run smoothly, the council’s work is completed efficiently and everyone goes home early and happy.  Such nights are not guaranteed and more often than we desire, controversial issues and unruly behavior derail an otherwise well planned council meeting.  Even the most experienced presiding officer will admit that he or she loses control of a meeting from time to time.  So what can you as an elected official do to help keep meetings under control?  Below are ten tips to keep in mind to tame unruly behavior at council meetings. 1.  Understand the Law.  State law, the city charter, city ordinances, council rules and even the United States and Oregon constitutions all play a role in how councils conduct their meetings.  For example, although Oregon’s public meeting laws require you to allow the public to observe council meetings, these statutes do not require you to permit public participation.  Conversely, other state statutes, such as the land use hearing procedures in Chapter 197, require you to permit public participation during your meetings.  In addition, your city charter, ordinances and/or council rules may require you to permit public participation during your meeting on various topics.  Understanding when public participation is required is the first step in being able to effectively control council meetings.

If public participation is part of your council meeting, the Oregon Attorney General has advised that “the presiding officer may regulate the order and length of appearances and limit appearances to presentations of relevant points.”  See Oregon Attorney General Public Records and Meetings Manual. The Attorney General has further explained that “[a]ny person who fails to comply with reasonable rules of conduct or who causes a disturbance may be asked or required to leave and upon failure to do so becomes a trespasser.”  Id.  Based on recent judicial decisions, however, cities should not eject an individual from a council meeting or otherwise prohibit free speech related activities unless those actions actually disrupt the meeting.  See Norse v. City of Santa Cruz, 629 F3d 966, 976 (9th Cir. 2010); Acosta v. City of Costa Mesa, _ F.3d _ (9th Cir. 2013).

Whether public participation is permitted or not, courts have explained that the free speech provisions of the United States and Oregon constitutions protect the behavior of citizens at council meetings.  For example, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals has expressly stated that the free speech rights of audience members continue to exist even when the public comment portion of the meeting has ended.  Thus, in Norse, the City had to prove to a jury that a nazi salute made by a member of the audience actually disrupted a meeting in order to justify the ejection of that audience member.  Understanding when and how these free speech rights apply to public participation is another step in being able to effectively control council meetings.

2. Have Rules and Procedures in Place.  Making sure that you have rules in place that clearly define the behavior expected at council meetings is also an important step in being able to effectively control council meetings.  In order to avoid being overly broad, and therefore violate the free speech provisions of the Oregon and United States constitutions, such rules should prohibit only actual disruptive behavior.  See, e.g., Acosta, _ F.3d _.  In addition, cities should publicize the rules and procedures and make them widely available to the public.  You should work closely with your city attorney to develop such rules.

3. Use Speaker Cards or Sign-Up Sheets.  Requiring speaker cards or sign-up sheets permits the presiding officer to know how many people wish to speak on a particular topic and create a plan for handling the public comment.  For example, knowing how many people wish to speak on a topic permits the presiding officer to limit the amount of time that each person receives, if necessary, before the public comment period begins.  Likewise, these tools prevent groups of individuals fighting for position to be the next in line to address the council, which thereby limits tension in the audience as everyone can remain seated comfortably until they are called upon to speak.  The use of speaker cards or sign-up sheets also permits the presiding officer to call groups to the podium together and request, if the group is amenable, to have a spokesperson speak on behalf of the group.  Finally, using speaker cards and sign-up sheets is an easy policy to rely upon to request that members of the public refrain from making statements or outbursts from their seats.

4. Explain Your Procedures.  Take the time at the beginning of a meeting and/or before a heated agenda item to explain your procedures.  Nothing derails an otherwise effective meeting better than confusion.  Explaining to the public what the council will be doing, when it will take public comment, how people will be called upon to provide public comment, and how long each individual will have to speak will help to keep confusion at a minimum and keep the meeting on track.

5. Be Consistent.  Whatever rules or procedures you establish, you need to make sure to enforce them consistently and uniformly.  Not only will an inconsistent application of your rules create potential legal liability for your city, it will cause the public to question your motives and integrity, which will undoubtedly lead to unruly behavior.

6. Be Respectful and Pay Attention.  Citizens who attend council meetings, like you, are taking time away from their families, work or other endeavors to participate in the governing process of their city.  Whether you agree with an individual’s position or not, being respectful by listening to what the individual has to say and paying attention while they are speaking is important.  Members of the public often feel as if they have wasted their time and that their thoughts and ideas have fell on deaf ears when members of the council check email, engage in side conversations or otherwise preoccupy themselves during public comment.  The level of frustration that emerges when this occurs often results in unruly behavior and disruptions to council meetings.

It is also important to remain respectful even when members of the public are not.  As an elected official you have likely already developed some tough skin, and there is no better time to rely on that attribute then during council meetings.  If you permit yourself to be drawn into arguments by responding to personal attacks, you will become a major contributor to the unruly behavior that causes disruption of meetings.  Rather than debating these issues, it is better to let the presiding officer or another member of the council respond by informing the public that personal attacks are not welcomed, appreciated or helpful.  In addition, when confronted with such situations, it is better to focus on the behavior, not the person.  By explaining to the audience the type of behavior you desire rather than attacking the individual who is being disrespectful, you will likely be able to diffuse an otherwise contentious situation.

7. Wait to ask or answer questions or debate points.  Public comment is usually limited to a set amount of time.  You can easily contribute to unruly behavior when you interrupt an individual providing public comment before that time has expired in order to ask or answer a question or to debate a point that the individual has made.  For example, members of the public rightly feel that the time taken to answer your question or the time you took speaking should not count against their allotted time.  Because of this, the presiding officer must attempt to determine how much additional time to give the speaker, and when individuals disagree with the presiding officer’s determination, unruly behavior often results.  You avoid this issue entirely by waiting until the speaker’s time has expired to ask or answer questions or to make a counterpoint to what was just said.  Furthermore, you should keep in mind that public comment is just that – an opportunity for the public to share their opinions with the council.  It is not a designated time for the council to answer the public’s questions.  Allowing the presiding officer to explain this to the audience and asking staff to respond to the questions at a later time will avoid the unruly behavior that often results when the council engages in debates with members of the public.

8. Lead by Example.  We often forget that sitting in front of an audience means that we are constantly on display.  How you act during a meeting while you are on display indicates to the audience how you expect them to act.  If you are constantly interrupting or talking over your fellow councilors, raising your voice unnecessarily or otherwise demonstrating disrespectful behavior, you are encouraging such behavior from the audience.

9. Take Breaks.  We see it in sporting activities all the time.  Just as one team gains momentum and the game appears to be slipping away, the other team calls a time out.  Quite often, the short time out permits the other team to regroup and get back into the game.  This same philosophy works well at council meetings.  There is nothing wrong with taking a five minute break to let people cool down and to allow the council to regroup.  In addition, during the break, you will have an opportunity to work with your staff including your city recorder, city manager, city attorney or police chief to determine the best manner to keep the meeting under control.

10. Attend Training Opportunities.  The more experience you have, the easier it is to resolve and avoid situations that create unruly behavior.  The League of Oregon Cities has many opportunities for you to gain experience through their Oregon Local Leadership Institute classes.  In addition, your city staff is likely able and ready to provide the council with training about these issues.  A great tool you might want to use in such trainings is the council bloopers video the League recently distributed to all members.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Following the tips above and taking other steps to run an organized meeting will stop must unruly behavior before it even starts.