By ZEINAB NAJM
DEARBORN — Residents and city officials got a crash course on the city’s meeting procedures and charter during a public parliamentary procedures seminar Sept. 6.
Michigan Municipal League General Counsel William Mathewson presented the information to those in attendance.
He focused on the basics of Michigan’s Opening Meetings Act which allows residents to know what goes on in the government by requiring public bodies to conduct nearly all business at open meetings.
All decisions of a public body and deliberations must be made and take place at a meeting open to the public, he said.
“City council members are good communicators,” Mathewson said. “That is why they are elected.”
Some basic requirements include holding the meeting at a place available to the general public, posting a schedule, allowing recording and public comments and keeping a record of minutes.
A few residents in attendance raised the concern with when the public is allowed to speak and the three-minute time limit during council meetings.
Residents asked council members at the seminar to consider allowing public comments before the meeting or after each agenda item as an alternative.
Currently in Dearborn Heights, residents must wait until the meeting is completed before commenting.
Mathewson also explained the rules of a closed session, which can be held if it falls within one of the designated exceptions, such as strategy and negotiation sessions connected with negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement. Another exception is considering contents of an application for employment or appointment to public office if requested by the candidate.
A new challenge Mathewson addressed was city officials’ communicating with each other via technology. Emails cannot be used for conducting a secret ballot or a round robin vote on a matter the public should know about, Mathewson said.
Council members also can’t use emails as a method of conducting closed meetings when open is required, a method of deliberation toward a decision, a method of conducting a meeting for the Internet and as a means to circumvent the spirit and intent of the OMA.
“Training helps understand technology concerns,” Mathewson said. “There is currently no social media policy for exchanging views that can affect the Opening Meetings Act.”
Coco Siewert, Michigan Municipal League professional registered parliamentarian, then briefly explained the basics of a city charter and parliamentary law.
A city charter states how often regular meetings must be held, how to fill a city council vacancy and who has final authority on decision.
“Each community has a home rule,” Siewert said. “What pertains in one community does not in all other cities.”
She said parliamentary procedures allow individuals to express opinions, assist in making a decision, save time, provide a record in minutes and maintain order.
Under parliamentary law, organization is key, Siewert said. All members have equal rights and must establish a minimum number of members required to be present for business.
“This differs from community to community,” Siewert said. “There is no ‘one size fits all.’”
During a debate for city council meetings, the maker of the motion speaks first, all remarks must be addressed to the chair and remarks should be limited to two minutes, if possible.
People in attendance during meetings have the opportunity to debate as well and they are required to address the chair and not enter a debate with members of the audience, Siewert said.
Finally, Siewert gave four tips for conducting better meetings. She said the most important items are starting on time, having clear rules of procedure for public participation, directing comments and questions through the chair and discouraging additional last minute items.
(Zeinab Najm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)