By Frank Chmelik
Here is a bit of a different topic. Last week at the Commissioner Conference in Walla Walla we discussed strategies for contentious commission meetings. It was an interesting discussion led by me and Commissioner Troy Stariha from the Port of Kalama. It turns out, from the comments of the commissioners in attendance, that ports big and small face this issue from time-to-time.
It seems that contentious meetings are more common of late. This may relate to live streaming and broadcasting meetings, or perhaps port meetings are mirroring national polarizing trends or topics like climate change, logging, water quality, or Orca whales which generate strong feelings. With that, here are some strategies.
Anticipate a controversial meeting. Experience shows that port staff or port commissioners frequently perceive that an upcoming meeting will be controversial. In any event, look ahead and identify agenda items or port issues that may be controversial. Usually, controversial topics are foreseeable.
Plan for the controversial meeting. Ports are really good at planning for capital projects, maintenance and Port events. With the suggestions below, plan on how a controversial meeting will be conducted. Port staff and the commission president should have a plan for the issue.
Keep the issue in perspective. As the port plans for the meeting remember to keep the issue in perspective. Most issues are only of interest to a fraction of the port district’s citizens. The speakers sometimes say they are there “speaking for the public.” They are not. The elected commissioners speak for the public.
Educate the public as to the decision timeline. At the beginning of the meeting the commission president should acknowledge the issue, acknowledge that it is controversial and let the public know how and when it will be decided. For example, the commission president could note that the port commission will listen to public comment for the present and the next meeting where a decision will be made. If there will be breaks let the public know about the breaks.
Educate the public as to the commission’s role. The Commissioners are elected to weigh varying interests and arrive at the “best decision.” Sometimes there are pluses and minuses to a decision. Let the public know that the port commission understands its role is to weigh the various viewpoints and to arrive at a decision.
Get a room – a big enough room. When you anticipate a controversial topic, move the meeting to a large enough room. Tensions and temperatures rise in a small room. Consider if a city council or county council chamber or even a local theatre could be used. Experience shows that a large room tends to diffuse tensions.
Use a podium. Speakers should be asked to step to a podium. This will give some order to the meeting.
Set enough time aside for public comment or for large issue hold a public hearing. Let the public know that the port commission has set extra time aside to hear from the public. In fact, invite groups that have an opposing view to come to a meeting and express those views.
Set the standard. Let the public know that the community standard – not the port standard is that folks are treated politely and that personal attacks are not acceptable. I say, “community standard” because experience shows it works better if the port commission notes that, “here in our town” or “here in our county” “we have a tradition of treating everyone with respect.” It is harder for disruptive members of the public to disagree with a “community standard.”
Consider a moderator. Running a contentious meeting is a skill which not all port commission presidents possess. Perhaps the executive director has this skill. If not, consider finding a skilled moderator to run the public comment portion of the meeting or the public hearing.
Get a bell. Most port districts limit speakers to several minutes. Have a port staffer (not the commission president) ding a bell and then gently remind the speaker to wrap it up so that others can speak.
Do not engage in discussions with a speaker. Once you do it for one speaker the port commission will be forced to give equal attention to other speakers. Let the public know it is time for you as commissioners to listen.
Above all be polite and show respect. Generally, it takes a lot for the public to come to a meeting and speak. Always be polite, thank the speakers, and stay engaged. Nothing raises the temperature more than speakers who perceive that they are not being listened to or that their comments are not being considered.
The bottom line is that with proper pre-meeting planning and the execution of a solid plan, port commissions can manage a controversial meeting or topic.
As always, please contact your port counsel with any questions regarding this topic. And, if you have a particular question for a Knowing the Waters, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.