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Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Preservation Commission Meetings and Bylaws

Chapter 5: Preservation Commission Operations, Page 1 of 6

Preservation Commission Meetings and Bylaws | HPC Training | Wisconsin Historical Society

Commission meetings provide a venue where meaningful decisions can be reached. It is largely through public meetings and hearings that community members develop perceptions of their local historic preservation commission.

The key factors in holding effective meetings and projecting a positive public image are:

  • Preparedness
  • Attention to detail
  • Consistency
  • Decorum
  • Communication
  • Impartiality
  • Fairness

Before Your Meeting

Be Prepared
Before a meeting takes place, make sure you are prepared. This includes being familiar with applicable laws, rules, and procedures; the commission's bylaws; local design guidelines and their criteria; your local preservation ordinance; and any other law or statute that affects the commission's business and actions. When possible, members should visit the property(ies) to be discussed to be familiar with its setting and details. If commission members visit a property as a group, the laws of public notice might apply.
Know Your Open Meeting Laws
Commission members must be careful to comply with any "sunshine acts" that apply to their community. These statutes define what constitutes a meeting and require that every portion of an administrative agency and legislative meeting be open to public observation with certain exceptions. Often a meeting is defined as any gathering of a given number of members where the group's business is discussed. Public notice of any such defined meeting must be given. Check with your commission's or municipality's counsel to know what laws apply to your commission.
Establish Written Bylaws and Procedures
Although bylaws are not technically required for most commissions, the creation and adoption of commission bylaws and rules of procedure are highly recommended to regulate the commission's affairs and actions. Adherence to commission bylaws results in consistency and fairness. In addition to the election of officers, matters that need to be addressed include determining who will coordinate and contact city staff regarding the commission's activities; the keeping and publishing of minutes; meeting dates, times, and location; meeting procedures and formats; and setting agendas. In establishing these policies, the commission should review and comply with the local government procedures concerning public notices of meetings, mailings, and other issues.
 
A review of Robert's Rules of Order will help commission members to be familiar with how to properly conduct a public meeting. Robert's Rules of Order is a well-known and recognized manual on parliamentary procedure. The handbook serves as a guide to running meetings effectively and fairly and is used by a wide variety of organizations, clubs, and other groups. Originally published in 1876, the book is now in its tenth edition and remains the dominant authority on conducting business at meetings and public gatherings. Robert's Rules of Order provides rules for making and voting on motions, proper protocol for discussions, and other important elements of meetings. Following these rules helps to ensure that everyone is heard and that decisions are made without confusion. It is wise for commission members to obtain a copy of this handbook and have a good working knowledge of how it applies to their operations.
Set an Agenda
Having a good agenda helps the meeting stay focused and run more efficiently. Common elements include basic information such as the name of the group and its chairperson; the time, date, and place of meeting; and items to be considered and those responsible for presenting them. Identify items that will require action and those that will be open for discussion only. Action items should be addressed first, with issues addressed in order of importance or urgency. The agenda and any relevant background materials should be distributed ahead of time to participants.
Prepare the Setting
Make sure the room in which the meeting will take place has sufficient resources and is ready to go. Avoid rooms that are too big or too small for the anticipated number of attendants, and make sure there is adequate seating. Seating arrangements should enhance communication and involvement. A common arrangement is to have commission members sit in a semicircle facing public attendants. Make sure all necessary equipment, such as audio or video equipment, is present and in working order. Ensure that lighting and sound settings are appropriate. The room arrangement should be professional but not intimidating. Property owners are often wary of facing a commission. Examine ways to place the applicant at the same height level as the commission, and remove extra tables, desks, or other objects that stand between the commission and the applicant. Keeping applicants at an unreasonable distance from the commission can also make for an intimidating experience. Applicants are your neighbors and should be treated as cordially as possible.

During Your Meeting

Set the Tone
Start the meeting on time and project a positive, businesslike attitude. Thank the applicants for their time in coming before the commission and recognize how important their work is to better the community. Speak clearly and confidently, and avoid use of jargon and acronyms. Nervousness and uncertainty are easily noticed and give a perception of disorganization and arbitrariness. Begin the meeting by introducing commission members and summarizing the agenda. Take care of legal, record, and housekeeping issues such as the presence of a quorum, statement of applicable rules, whether requirements for notices have been met, and approval of previous meeting minutes.
Facilitate Communication
Throughout the meeting, the chairperson of the commission will lead the process and serve as a moderator. He or she should have knowledge of the rules and procedures. The chair's primary job is to facilitate communication. The chair must ensure that all participants have an opportunity to be heard, maintain decorum, and anticipate and diffuse emotional buildups. He or she will need to clarify and summarize issues and help separate facts from opinions.
Consider Applications Thoroughly
Make sure that both proponents and opponents have an opportunity to present their cases and time for rebuttal. Allow all parties to express their views. Thoroughly discuss the project — listen carefully, and ask questions to clarify issues. Make sure all required documentation is in order. Study the facts of each case and consider factors such as cost, practicality, effectiveness, and enforceability. Develop a consensus if possible, and call for a vote after all discussion is finished. Once a decision has been reached, it should be clearly stated along with the rationale behind it. Summarize the evidence, recount the standards that applied, and state why the commission is taking the action.
Conclude the Meeting
After action items have been addressed, the commission can then move on through remaining matters on the agenda. As the meeting reaches a close, it is a good idea to summarize what actions were taken and let participants know what will happen next in the process. Always close the meeting by thanking all participants and attendants.

After Your Meeting

Distribute Minutes and Follow Up
Make sure that detailed minutes of the meeting are produced and made available in a timely fashion. All meeting documents, including the agenda, minutes, and supporting documents, should be kept together and archived. Follow up on any necessary action, such as issuing a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA).
Communicate with the Public
Maintain good public relations and communication by keeping the public informed of the meeting's discussions and actions. Consider publishing summaries of the meeting in newspaper articles and on the commission's website.
Review, Reflect, and Provide Ongoing Training
Conduct a review of the meeting and the board's performance to determine what went well and where there is room for improvement. Strive to keep all commission members informed and productive by providing regular, ongoing trainings and up-to-date educational materials.