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Civility at Council Meetings
Seven Rules
for the Gatekeepers
Jason Holt 
By Jason Holt
East Orange Corporation
Counsel and League
Associate Counsel

Those of us who are charged with the job of making sure that the governing body has convened a meeting in compliance with the law and are further tasked with ensuring that public business is allowed to take place during the meeting are gatekeepers. Gatekeepers stand up under the stress of untoward circumstances, public criticism, unruly groups, protestors and even violence. They buffer your colleagues, elected officials or the town itself. Their title doesn’t matter; it could be Municipal Clerk, Council President, Municipal Attorney, Municipal Administrator or support staff. But if you have experienced and survived any of those exasperating circumstances which have the potential to kick the municipal family into a frenzy, you understand the following maxim: It’s not always what happens at a meeting, but what doesn’t happen that makes a good meeting. Gatekeepers are truly frontline personnel in the mission to operate an effective and efficient government.
Each meeting of the governing body should be considered sacrosanct from the stand point of conducting the affairs of the municipality. However, often times the sanctity of the meeting is challenged. The challenge may come from a municipal council gadfly, a vendor seeking a contract, a disgruntled employee or even from within the governing body itself. The worst thing to happen is for your meeting to be disrupted to such an extent that the flow of council matters is interrupted. Gatekeepers are given the job of making sure that the meeting does not spin out of control. If you understand and follow the seven golden rules in this article, you will be in a much better position to ensure that the governing body conducts its affairs properly. Let’s briefly examine each rule.

The Seven Golden Rules of Keeping Order At A Meeting of the Municipal Governing Body

Rule 1 : Understand Your Role As Gatekeeper
Municipal clerks, attorneys, administrators and support staff are not politicians. You are technicians tasked with a professional job. Don’t be confused. You do not have a vote even when you want one. This is true regardless of whether the elected officials from your standpoint are on the wrong side of an issue. Remember, the elected official who presides over a meeting is always at his or her best when focused on the business of the meeting. Give them every opportunity to do so.

Rule 2: Be knowledgeable about the fundamentals of the law which include your municipal Charter and The Senator Byron N. Baer Open Public Meetings Act.1
There is nothing more embarrassing than realizing after your governing body’s legislative actions have been challenged that you haven’t covered all the bases. An inadvertent mistake often comes to light when a meeting of the governing body is contested within the statutory time period by an “Action In Lieu of Prerogative Writ”. 2 Perhaps you incorrectly advertised for a meeting. The meeting is set aside by the Court and now it has to be redone. Understand the fundamentals of the law and work as a team to avoid mistakes.

Rule 3: Respect and Understand the Meeting Process
Don’t leave common sense behind. Keep your mindset simple. The purpose of the meeting is to transact public business. Everything that helps that happen is good, everything else is a distraction.

Rule 4: Embrace the Diversity of Personalities of Council Members and Municipal Officials Who Participate In the Meeting—Know Your Municipal Team
If you understand who you are working with it makes the job easier. You don’t have to agree but respecting a colleague’s thought process or their idiosyncrasies adds to the plus column. One person alone can not run a meeting. The most productive municipal governments understand that it’s the team not an individual that pulls the wagon the easiest.

Rule 5: Familiarize Yourself With Hot Button Issues In Your Municipality and Keep Your Members and Municipal Attorney Informed
Every town has its own unique issues. Knowing what they are and when those issues are coming up at meeting helps in the planning process. It could be as simple as printing extra meeting agendas for the larger than normal influx of citizens who come out to protest a revaluation of properties. The extra agendas may take away a discussion issue on the floor and shave time off a difficult meeting. Everyone likes to be prepared and for those issues that only you see coming, don’t keep them to yourself. Inform your team.

see caption below
Gatekeepers are truly frontline personnel in the mission to operate an effective and efficient government. The East Orange Council, for which the author serves as a gatekeeper includes Councilwoman Joyce C. Goore,  Councilwoman Andrea D. McPhatter,  Councilman Lonnie Hughes, Councilwoman Sharon Fields, Councilman Ted Green,  Deputy City Clerk Hollie A. Cuttino, City Clerk Cynthia Brown, Councilwoman Alicia Holman,  Corporation Counsel and Associate League Counsel Jason Holt, Councilman William C. Holt,  Assistant Corporation Counsel Kevin Harris, Councilwoman Jacquelyn E. Johnson, Councilwoman Virginia A. Cross, City Administrator Reginald Lewis and (Center Seated) Council Chairwoman Quilla E. Talmadge.

Rule 6: Follow the Law of Detachment—It’s Not Personal, Just Business”
It would be great if highly charged emotional issues would just go away. These issues usually don’t and when they make it to the floor of the meeting of the municipal governing body it can be chaotic. Don’t add to the chaos by being swept away with them. Stay emotionally detached and remember that the purpose of the meeting is to transact business and you are there to facilitate that purpose.

Rule 7: Know When to Call For Help
Once in a while fine distinctions have to be made in determining how to address disrespectful conduct of individuals at a public meeting. The official presiding over the meeting has the authority to expel from the chambers or compel the arrest of unruly individuals. Disrupting a meeting is a disorderly person’s offense punishable by fine and incarceration of up to six months in jail.3 The standard used for evaluating this type of conduct is typically considered a balancing test. It should be applied before taking any action which may abridge the constitutional rights of a citizen. This test balances the right of government to conduct orderly proceedings versus the right of individuals to free speech and assembly. You should discuss with your mayor, police department, chair of the governing body and municipal attorney as to when this authority should be exercised. However, don’t be afraid to call for help when necessary.

In conclusion, gatekeepers are typically not feted for the professional acumen that helps keep municipalities on track and allows public business to be conducted. However, if you try conducting a meeting without them, most assuredly the train will run off the track.

1 Each municipality has a charter upon which its municipal code is based. The charter sets the standard from which all acts of the municipality are authorized. The official title of the “Sunshine Law” or the “Open Public Meetings Act” is “The Senator Byron N. Baer Open Public Meetings Act” at N.J.S.A. 10:4-6.

2 N.JS.A. 10:4-15 provides that any action taken by a public body at a meeting is voidable in Superior Court if Action In Lieu of Prerogative Writ is filed within forty five days. The governing body may take remedial action to correct deficiencies at another public meeting.

3 N.J.S.A. 2C:33-8 provides for a three prong test for conviction under the statute. The elements are: 1.Must be a lawful meeting; 2.Culpability-purpose of conduct was to disrupt or prevent meeting; 3. Actor must have obstructed or interfered with meeting physically.

 

 

 

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