Agenda abuse
June 15, 2017
by Ivan Raconteur

What is an agenda?

I believe most people understand an agenda is a list of items to be discussed during a formal meeting.

Perhaps a better question would be “What is the purpose of an agenda?”

There seems to be some confusion on this point.

One reason for having an agenda is to keep the meeting on track so the group participating in the meeting can conduct its business in an efficient manner.

Straying from the agenda can have a variety of negative consequences, including unnecessarily extending the duration of the meeting.

There are, however, more important reasons for having and adhering to an agenda.

Distributing a good agenda, along with supporting documents, prior to a meeting allows participants to prepare to discuss the business.

This is true for all meetings, but it is especially true for meetings of public bodies where elected officials are carrying out the business of a city, school district, or other entity.

We know that not all elected officials do their homework. In fact, it’s fairly easy to tell when an elected official picks up his or her meeting packet minutes before the meeting starts and is unfamiliar with the material.

There are, however, conscientious elected officials and staff members who consistently prepare for meetings in advance.

This is one reason it is so important for complete agendas of public meetings to be posted in advance.

If items are added at the last minute, it eliminates the opportunity for those involved to study the material prior to the meeting. This reduces the efficiency and effectiveness of the meeting.

If an elected official is hurriedly trying to read material during a meeting, it prevents them from listening and participating in the discussion.

Another extremely important reason for posting a complete agenda prior to a meeting is to allow residents and other concerned individuals to learn what the council or other body will be discussing. This gives residents the chance to attend the meeting if they wish to hear the discussion about a particular topic, and to ask questions or raise concerns prior to the council taking action.

A good agenda promotes transparency.

Some councils and boards don’t seem to understand that. They routinely add items to the agenda at the last minute, even during a meeting, so no one except those in attendance will know what is being discussed until after the body has taken action.

Locally, Lester Prairie City Council is one of the worst offenders.

Regular meetings take place the second Tuesday each month, and the city coordinator/clerk/treasurer consistently posts the agenda no later than the Friday prior to the meeting.

However, there seems to be a culture with this group that condones adding late items to the agenda.

Some of these are added after the agendas are sent out, and others are added after the meeting is called to order.

It is even a regular part of the meetings for the mayor to go around the table and ask each council member if they have items they wish to add to the agenda.

For example, there were eight items on Tuesday’s agenda when it was posted/distributed the Friday before the meeting.

After the meeting was called to order, four more items were added to the agenda. During the meeting, another three items that were not on the agenda were discussed.

Thus, there were eight items on the agenda residents would have seen prior to the meeting, and seven were added later, nearly doubling the number of items discussed.

The meeting schedule is set at the beginning of each year, so everyone should be aware of the deadline to get items added to the agenda.

There is always a potential for items that need to be added for various reasons, but this should be the exception, not the rule.

There are better ways to handle this than making every meeting a free-for-all.

In Wright County, for example, if someone wants to add an item after the deadline for the agenda, they must come before the board and petition the item on to the agenda, which requires them to explain to the board why the item should be added late, and why it can’t wait until the next meeting. This promotes accountability.

Direction must come from those in charge.

Elected officials need to remember they are not working for themselves – they are representing their constituents. Residents and taxpayers deserve a chance to observe and be part of the process, not just an afterthought.

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