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A Massachusetts Municipal Councillors’ Association “lunch and learn” webinar on Sept. 14 focused on civility and rules of engagement for city and town councils.
The two speakers, Marlborough City Council President Michael Ossing and retired Franklin Town Administrator Jeff Nutting, agreed that a key factor to a successful council meeting or public hearing is a strong chair or president who identifies rules and expectations at the outset of every meeting. These rules may include time limits (in communities that have them).
Ossing cited Chapter 30A, Section 20(g) of the Massachusetts General Laws: “No person shall address a meeting of a public body without permission of the chair, and all persons shall, at the request of the chair, be silent. No person shall disrupt the proceedings of a meeting of a public body. If, after clear warning from the chair, a person continues to disrupt the proceedings, the chair may order the person to withdraw from the meeting and if the person does not withdraw, the chair may authorize a constable or other officer to remove the person from the meeting.”
Nutting and Ossing said council chairs need to set a good example and remain impartial in their words and body language. Avoid choosing sides or cheerleading for one person or side of a debate. Use de-escalation techniques. (Ossing favors a recess when things get heated.) When dealing with emotional issues, it’s OK to show empathy, but remember that the business of the city or town is the council’s first priority.
Nutting worked in a council form of government for nearly 20 years as town administrator in Franklin. He recommends the adoption of written policies — a code of conduct — that govern how the council operates, so all members are held to the same standard and are accountable to each other and the public. An orientation session for new members can also boost accountability, helping to eliminate the common learn-as-you-go mistakes.
One of the hardest but most important things for new councillors to do is be quiet, Nutting said.
Both speakers agreed that social media can be a minefield for any elected official to navigate. How do you respond to negative comments? Nutting suggested that a code of conduct can provide guidance and ensure that all members are managing social media in a similar manner.
• Town of Weymouth Town Council Rules 2020-2022 (550K PDF)
• MGL Chapter 30A Section 20(g) – presentation by Michael Ossing (90K PDF)
• How to Enjoy Being an Effective Board/Council – presentation by Jeff Nutting (40K PDF)