Is a consent agenda right for your board?

Boards can use a consent agenda to approve non-controversial items to expedite business and save time during meetings.

I am often impressed with the time saved by boards who effectively use a consent agenda. Dispensing with meaningless conversation on the minutes of the last meeting or the latest pile of government forms needing a signature gets the meeting moving and allows boards to start discussion on issues that matter most to the members of the board and the public.

Consent agendas (also referred to as consent calendars) are used to expedite approval of non-controversial business that comes before a board. Both government and non-profit boards find the use of a consent agenda a handy tool to take care of agenda items that need formal board approval but are routine in nature or have been thoroughly discussed during previous meetings. Items such as meeting minutes, routine correspondence, changes in policy or other matters can be bundled together and approved all at once by adopting the consent agenda in one motion. The use of a consent agenda allows for more effective meetings whereby meeting time is spent on discussing substantive issues rather than those that members agree should be disposed of quickly and without debate. The proper use of a consent agenda requires board members to be prepared and have ample time to review the items that are scheduled to appear on the consent agenda.

A board should adopt special rules regarding the use of a consent agenda. All members should thoroughly understand what items can be placed there and how they can remove an item from the consent agenda. As the name infers, consent by all members of a board must be given to approve the list. If one member wishes an item to be removed from the consent agenda, that item is removed from the consent agenda and placed on the regular agenda where it would it would have appeared if presented on its own. The consent agenda is typically placed at the beginning of the agenda.

At the time on the regular meeting agenda where there is to be action on the consent agenda, the chair should inquire whether any member would like an item removed. If a member requests an item removed the chair should repeat that the item is now removed from the consent agenda and determine where it will be placed on the regular agenda. The request for removal of items should be repeated until all members are satisfied with the contents of the consent agenda.

The most expeditious way to approve items on the consent agenda is for the chair to ask for unanimous consent. Once the chair is certain that the board is satisfied with the contents of the consent agenda, the chair may simply say “Are they any objections to the adoption of the consent agenda?” All members’ objections should have been revealed prior to the chair’s statement; however, by asking for objections the chair is offering members one last chance to remove an item from the list. If no objection is heard the vote is presumed unanimous and the chair states, “Without objection the consent agenda is adopted.”

The rules that govern the use of the consent agenda vary across boards. For example, I know of a city council that requires a roll call vote to adopt their consent agenda. This nuance covers rules described in their city charter which require a roll call vote for approval of financial matters. The roll call vote allows the council to adopt routine contracts and other non-controversial financial matters within the consent agenda. Boards should discuss what issues are appropriate for the consent agenda prior to adopting its use. They should define a process that all members are comfortable with and one that will allow them to stay within the law and remain transparent to the public or members.

For more information on running effective meetings, contact your local Michigan State University Extension local government and public policy educator.

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