What makes a good public meeting?

What makes a good public meeting? What even is a good public meeting? Do public meetings make a difference?

Public meetings are tightly woven into the process of urban planning, community development, and historic preservation. Are you developing a new building? Hold a public meeting. Trying to tear down a work of art? Hold a public meeting. Digging a new railroad tunnel? Many public meetings. Responding to protests over Confederate monuments? Hold a public meeting.

Don’t get me wrong. I love public meetings. Usually. I generally share the perspective of writer and educator Kate Drabinski who recently wrote about public meetings for her Baltimore City Paper column:

I also love the community meetings where we get together and try to figure out how to make our neighborhood better—fewer rats, more public trash cans, more lights, or whatever else people think we need. I even enjoy conversations about parking, which is what the really local meetings usually end up being about. Whatever happens, it’s excellent public theater as we put on a show for each other.

If public meetings are so central to the shaping of the city (whether through preservation or parking) , I think we should spend more time talking about them. Why do good public meetings matter? In part, because sometimes public meetings are not so good. Kate’s report continued:

Other times the show is just so fucking terrible that I’m jolted back to the reality that though the meeting’s often a farce, the material effects of them are very, very real. […] This was one of those alleged community engagement events where we’re supposed to feel happy to hear our voices heard, but it’s really just a chance for our elected officials to tell us about decisions they’ve already made. It’s awkward—you think they’re going to listen but then they do all the talking, and when the community they were so eager to hear from starts getting antsy, starts rumbling with their own concerns that don’t fit the script the officials brought with them, they threaten to close the whole thing down, because if you’re going to talk to us like that, raise your voice, use that tone, well, we don’t have to listen.

Public meetings are governed by a variety of rules and conventions—each with their own history. In February 1876, a 39 year-old military engineer named Henry Martyn Robert first published the Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies—better known today as Robert’s Rules of Order. A century later, anti-nuclear activists began using consensus-based approaches to decision-making—approaches that rose to prominence in 2011 as a feature of Occupy movement’s “general assemblies.” In Maryland, public meetings are subject to special legal requirements since 1954 when the state first required meetings of executive boards and commissions to stay open to the public. The official state Open Meetings Act was signed into law in 1977.1

But if we only look at procedural or legal definitions of “good” public meetings, we might lose sight of the bigger picture. Start with some practical questions: How are meetings supported by paid staff? How are meetings promoted? How are notes recorded and distributed?

Make sure you know what happened before the meeting (and what might happen after): Why is this meeting happening now? How is the meeting being reported by broadcast, print and online journalists? How attends the meeting? What impressions do they bring away to share with friends and neighbors?

I think these are hard questions to answer. On Thursday, I attended the first meeting of the special commission to review Baltimore’s public confederate monuments. Ask “why is this meeting happening now?” and you could start with the tagging of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on June 22. Or the tagging of the Confederate Defenders of Charleston statue on June 21. Or the shooting in Charleston on June 17.

You could even begin with the move a few years ago by a group of Baltimore Quakers to start protesting an annual celebration of Robert E. Lee in Wyman Park. Or William Walters’ effort—128 years ago—to donate a controversial statue of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and see it installed at Mount Vernon Place.

What makes a good public meeting about Baltimore’s Confederate Monuments? I don’t know for certain but Thursday’s meeting felt like a good place to start.

  1. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press maintains an Open Government Guide: a complete compendium of information on every state’s open records and open meetings laws.