The three major roles in a board meeting: Part 3
Guests play an important role in informing the board and share responsibility in knowing the rules.
Before describing responsibilities of non-members in a meeting, I need to clarify what kind of meetings we are talking about. First, let’s talk about “public” meetings. Many states, including Michigan, have what are known as “sunshine laws” which define the rules under which public meetings must be held. At a minimum, these laws typically state that no public can be denied attendance at a public meeting unless the meeting meets some sort of special criteria as defined in the law. Public Act 267 of 1976 (also known as MCL 15.261 – 15.275 or Open Meetings Act (OMA)) also describes such things as requirements for the public to be notified of a meeting, how to receive meeting documents, content of minutes, and penalties for non-compliance.
The OMA makes it clear that the public body can adopt rules of conduct for the public during their meetings. The role of the public in governmental meetings should be obvious in our democratic society. It is a fundamental principle in this country to allow for some level of public participating in matters of public policy. Public bodies must abide by state sunshine laws and when required allow for time on the agenda to listen to what the people have to say. In some cases, where decisions are of a complex nature and involve a variety of viewpoints, it is far more effective to getting the public to accept a decision or community plan when government dedicates time and resources to a more elaborate and lengthy public engagement process well beyond the minimum public comment or public hearing defined by law.
The other kind of meeting is any meeting not covered under a sunshine law. These are private sector meetings such as those of non-profits, service clubs, chambers of commerce, corporations, etc. The role of non-members at these meetings varies as much as these organizations’ missions and structures themselves. To know what the role of non-members is in these kinds of meetings goes back to reading the rules that govern the organization. Members of an organization who are not members of the board may not have any right to be in attendance at meetings unless invited.
Some organizations may have an “open board meeting” policy where members are always welcome. Concerns I have addressed regarding the rights of non-board members to attend meetings, or view meeting documents, seem to stem from suspicions of malfeasance or perceptions of lack of transparency on the boards part in reporting to the membership. I encourage members to bring these suspicions to the board, but only after reading the governing documents. Often, I have found that a board may only have an obligation to report to the membership on an annual basis and therefore may be well within their rights to not openly share their proceedings with members as often as members may like. If members are not satisfied with that kind of culture, they may choose to change the rules of their society or of course not renew their membership in that organization. Most commonly, a person who is not a member of an organization would have absolutely no right to attend a meeting unless invited by the board or the general membership to be there.
So, once it is determined that a non-board member can be present at a meeting, whether public or private, there are some responsibilities they have in fulfilling their role as guest:
Must obey meeting rules
A board expecting guests should have adopted meeting rules to govern their participation at the meeting. These rules should be written down and available. It is also helpful to provide a verbal reminder a friendly explanation of the rules up front of these rules so that board members and the public are clear on the expectations. Clarifying protocol can be helpful in making all those in attendance comfortable and can also promote proper behavior. Rules might include how long a guest may speak and to whom they should address their comments.
Do not deliberate or vote
There are definitely times when a board needs input from members of their organization or the public; it is a matter of law for public boards to hear the public comment on policy issues; however, once the time for public comment is over the board should keep it that way. Unless a non-member is asked to speak or answer a question during the board meeting, people in the audience should remain quiet so that the board can deliberate and hold their meeting without disturbance. If a guest is present and not a member of the board, their comments may provide information to the board but that member is not allowed a vote on the issue.
Should behave with respect for others and expect that in return from the board
As a guest, you should respect the organization whose meeting you are attending, abide by their rules and address the board with the respect they deserve for the commitment they are making in serving. Likewise, you should expect the same in return – that the board will listen to your comments, pay attention to your proposals and take action steps or advise you on how to take action to get your ideas implemented if appropriate.
In summary, everyone at a meeting has a part to play in making it successful. Knowing the responsibilities of the role you play in the meeting can you make the time you spend at a meeting more productive and the time commitment more worthwhile.
For more details on each of these roles and responsibilities from Michigan State University Extension read: