November 6, 2017; Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, TX)
The consent agenda is one of the best tools to help board meetings move along quickly and remain focused on the things that matter, but it can be abused. At a meeting this August, a consent agenda was misused to sneak a controversial motion past the school board of Fort Worth, Texas.
The school board of Fort Worth convened a special meeting on August 25th to discuss some very important matters: passing an ordinance setting the tax rate, putting that tax rate increase on the ballot of a general election, and putting a bond issue on the ballot as well. There is no question that these are weighty matters for a school board to take up. This is a perfect time for a consent agenda to be used, to enable the board to focus its limited attention on the issues of primary importance.
As a reminder for those readers not familiar with this practice, the consent agenda is a tool in which a variety of minor items can be voted on as a slate by a board. Generally, consent agendas include such items as the minutes of a previous meeting, reports from committees that require no action to be taken, or other such noncontroversial items. All of these reports and minutes are gathered together, shared with the directors in advance of the meeting, and then are adopted with a single vote.
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The agenda for the August 25th meeting of the Fort Worth school board included 19 items on the consent agenda. Although that seems like a lot, most of them were standard items. One, though, was not quite so routine. Item D on the consent agenda called for approval to rescind a school board Ethics-Conflict of Interest Disclosure policy that had been adopted only a few months earlier. The newer policy, adapted from a similar one from Houston, dealt with such things as preventing candidates from accepting campaign contributions from any organization or person that had a vested interest in the outcome of any of the school board’s decisions.
The policy had passed unanimously, and it is unclear why the president included the call to rescind it on the consent agenda for the August 25th meeting. The committee that had drafted the original policy had not asked for the review. When called for comment, the board president did not respond.
Many of the directors who voted on the consent agenda now say that they did not realize this particular item had been included. This probably means they did not read the consent agenda carefully, which is a danger of that tool. It is often accused of being a way for boards to rubber-stamp decisions made outside the boardroom.
Some questions that might raise red flags include: Who drafted the consent agenda item to rescind the policy? What is the reason for drafting the motion? Why was it included in consent agenda and not on the regular agenda? The board might also want to review its rules for what gets on the consent agenda and how. This is a controversial item to have been drafted without going through committee and then hidden in consent agenda on a day when two very serious items were being discussed. Was someone trying to hide it?—Rob Meiksins