The Consent Agenda

Bill Freitag

Imagine attending a county meeting — say a Board of Supervisors meeting — that can take two hours on a good day, but will usually run much longer. What would you do to shorten the meeting, yet still get the important information you need as a citizen or as a board member? There is something board chairs can do to achieve that — it’s called a consent agenda.

Brenda Garton, when she was our county temporary administrator, left us with a list of items to work on for improving the county’s functioning. One of those items is “Adopt a Consent Agenda” for board or commission meetings. I am personally a fan of the consent agenda and we use it at the board meetings of the Rappahannock County Water and Sewer Authority as a means for reducing meeting time. So, how does that work?

A consent agenda is a board meeting practice that groups routine business and reports into one agenda item. The types of items that appear on a consent agenda are non-controversial or routine items that are nevertheless still discussed at every meeting because they are on the agenda. They can also be items that have been previously discussed at length where there is group consensus.

The following items are some typically found on a consent agenda: Minutes of the last meeting, financials, department or committee reports, results of inter-regional meetings, volunteer appointments, committee appointments, and correspondence that requires no action.

The chair usually takes the lead in utilizing a consent agenda and decides which items will be placed on the consent agenda, or this may be performed by the county administrator. The consent agenda can appear as part of the normal meeting agenda or it can be attached separately to the meeting agenda. The chair supervises preparation of the agenda package that includes all of the items on the consent agenda. The package must be distributed to board members soon enough so that they have time to read through the documents prior to the meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, the board chair asks members if any of the consent agenda items should be moved to the regular discussion items. If a member requests that an item be moved, it must be moved. Any reason is sufficient to move an item (a member can move an item to discuss the item, to query the item, or to vote against it). Once the item has been moved, the chair may decide to take up the matter immediately or move it to a discussion item. When there are no items to be moved or if all requested items have been moved, the chair or secretary reads out loud the remaining consent item titles. The chair can then move to adopt the consent agenda. Hearing no objections, the chair announces that the consent agenda has been adopted (it’s not necessary to take a vote on consent agenda items). The secretary, or whoever prepares the minutes, should include the full text of the resolutions, reports, and recommendations that were adopted as part of the consent agenda in preparing the minutes.

As an example, look at the last BOS meeting agenda to see what could easily have been part of a consent agenda: Approval of minutes, the schools report, the presentation from People Inc. All the reports were information, no decision required, and under Old Business items 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 required no action.

Yes there are problems in using a consent agenda that can occur when members approve consent agendas without first having reviewed the documents. The result is that consent items can be hastily approved and result in a cover-up. For example, if members are not reviewing financial items, overspending or wrong spending can occur without appropriate oversight. A diligent, well-rounded board must hold each other accountable to their constituents.

All board members have a responsibility for making sure that consent agenda items are distributed in enough time to review them prior to the meeting. Each board member also has a responsibility to read and review consent agenda items and address any concerns prior to the meeting. This means Do Your Homework.

Other problems may arise because the public attending the meeting may be used to hearing the details of the consent agenda items which will now not be presented. This should not be a big problem since the items on the consent agenda such as reports will be posted on the county website under Boarddocs and any interested party can read the reports or documents on that site. Of the typical crowd at a BOS meeting, for those who have a deep interest in the school system, for example, will probably attend that board’s meetings for detailed information. The VDOT report that may interest only a small audience can be found on Boarddocs.

The real benefit of using the consent agenda is that it should reduce the current interminable time of such meetings to something more manageable. Unfortunately, the BOS has been slow to adopt consent agendas. Why? Perhaps a bit of nudging from us citizens may generate some action.

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