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Gavel rampage, lack of decorum get national spotlight

We chalked up one more national black eye last week, this one thanks to our increasingly infamous Trumbull County commissioners.

In a light-hearted story I normally would describe as a “fun read” about out-of-control gaveling at public meetings, The Wall Street Journal (yes, that’s correct) last week carried the story “Unruly Times Spark Ruckus of Gaveling.”

The story weaved through examples of incivility occurring with seemingly increased frequency in local government.

The article by WSJ reporter Jacob Gershman started out enjoyably with a tale about a “gavel-pounding rampage” at a county board of supervisors meeting in Hinds County, Mississippi. Next, it described a ridiculous heated incident of gaveling in Franklin County, Washington.

And then, there it was, in black and white for all the world to see:

In Trumbull County, Ohio, no amount of gaveling has been able to get the meetings of the board of commissioners back on track.

“That’s not the appropriate language to be saying at a public meeting,” replied Frank Fuda, the board president.

“And that’s not the appropriate demeanor to bang your gavel like a psycho,” Ms. Frenchko snapped back. Weeks earlier at another meeting, an exasperated Mr. Fuda struck his gavel so emphatically it splintered.

“He actually hit it so hard a piece of it flew off,” said Ms. Frenchko. “I was like, oh my God, you broke the gavel.”

The article was accompanied by an image of Fuda’s splintered gavel captured by Frenchko’s cellphone. She had her phone handy because inexplicably she video records every commissioners meeting, not to mention most of her interactions with county office staff.

The article continued.

“What do you do when a commissioner interrupts every meeting for 18 months?” Mr. Fuda said in an interview. “What else do we have but the gavel? What am I going to do, yell at her?”

Take it from me — who regularly listens to audio- recorded commissioner meeting minutes that always include lashing out, arguing and gavel pounding — Fuda does that too.

And so does Frenchko.

Third commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa also does his fair share of verbalizing his frustration during the public meetings and speaking over Frenchko.

These days, in fact, the buzz phrase at commissioners meetings is, “Point of order!”

That’s “objection” under parliamentary procedure, implying a rules violation.

Frenchko calls out the term when she’s interrupted. Problem is, she also interrupts with equal frequency, and now, from time to time, Fuda also calls out, “Point of order!”

I had to look up the term the first time I heard Frenchko say it. In fact, until Frenchko was elected, I doubt “Point of Order!” had ever been uttered at a commissioners meeting.

Somehow, commissioners actually believe their meetings are conducted per “Robert’s Rules of Order,” parliamentary procedure intended to create professional decorum.

It’s not working.

I became so bothered by the public disgrace that is Trumbull County commissioners meetings that I reached out for advice from Professional Registered Parliamentarian W. Craig Henry. After doing this for 45 years, Henry, of Oklahoma City, indeed, is an expert.

Despite what appears to be increasing poor behavior at public meetings, as demonstrated by The Wall Street Journal’s story, Henry believes many organizations are more in tune with and using parliamentary procedures.

Henry said some even are hiring parliamentarians to help conduct their meetings.

He admits, though, that falls off at lower levels of government.

“You are seeing them want to get things done quickly,” Henry said, and often have the attitude “we don’t need no stinking rules!”

With Trumbull County commissioners meetings that often last more than two hours, there appears to be no concern about progressing quickly.

So, Henry’s best advice for civil meetings?

He suggests groups with combative situations consider hiring a parliamentarian to conduct the meetings — even for a month. That person, he said, would strictly keep them from talking over one another.

And, he says, create written “commandments” that everyone can live by — even ones that can be framed and hung on the meeting room wall.

Personally, I think that’s a great idea. The question is, though, would they agree to it?

blinert@tribtoday.com

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