Don’t include detailed public comment in meeting minutes

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When city councils, school boards or other public bodies hold their meetings, it is usual to reserve a time in the meeting for members of the public to speak to their elected officials. One common name for this is the public comment period.

(c) Can Stock Photo

We recommend that detailed public comment should not be included in the body’s minutes. For background, read our suggestions about how to conduct the public comment period. 

What is the purpose of meeting minutes?

According to Robert’s Rules of Order, and the common understanding of parliamentary procedure, minutes are a record of the decisions made by the body. They are supposed to include “what is done,” and not “what is said.” Personal comments and observations made by elected officials should not be included in the minutes.

What is the purpose of the public comment period?

The purpose of the public comment period is for members of the public to inform the body of their views. This is an important function and it is critical for the elected officials to listen with care to the public, and to consider what they hear in their deliberations. Just as with the elected officials themselves, however, there is no need to make a permanent written record of the public’s observations.

Public hearings are different from the public comment period

Note that public hearings, formal structured events required by law for certain kinds of local government decisions, are different from the public comment period. It is characteristically a requirement that testimony provided at a public hearing should be recorded. This article is not about public hearings.

How should you record public comment?

Here are some different ways to record public comment:

  • Public comment was given.
  • Public comment was given by Resident Smith and Resident Valdez.
  • Public comment was given. Residents expressed their appreciation for the work done by the board, expressed concern about the headquarters building, and asked the board to consider employee welfare in the current negotiations.
  • Public comment was given as follows:

–  Resident Green said the board was doing a great job.

–  Resident Khan expressed concern about the cost of the new building.

–  Resident Robinson asked the board to consider employee welfare in the current negotiations.

Don’t record detailed public comment like this

  • Resident Jones said that she was very concerned about her latest water bill. She only uses water for basic functions of cooking and cleaning, and a person ought to be able to do that without paying $40/month. She didn’t understand why the board had decided to raise the rates when the district was clearly doing very well financially. After all, commissioners had found the money to attend the state-wide conference last month, and what was the point of all that gallivanting about anyway? Surely in these days of online learning, people can get what they need for training over the Internet…and so on…

Avoid these pitfalls of recording detailed public comment

Recently we’ve seen instances where detailed public comment in the minutes led to problems. During public comment, a resident objected to the way his comments at the previous meeting had been recorded. The body postponed approval of the minutes in order to redraft the comments to the resident’s satisfaction. This was a waste of public time and money.

In another instance, the secretary was asked to include a notation in the minutes correcting a statement, made by a resident during the public comment period, which was considered to be erroneous. This violates the purpose of minutes, which is to create a record of the meeting itself.

In yet another instance, the resident himself recognized that his remarks sounded foolish in the detailed record, and agreed that a change in practice was desirable.

More information

Guidelines for Public Comment in Local Government

Don’t get into back-and-forth exchanges during public comment

Citizen’s Guide to Effective Public Meetings

The bottom line on detailed public comment in the meeting minutes

If your jurisdiction makes an audio or video recording of your meetings, public comment will be available for posterity. If it does not, in our view there is still no need to make or keep a detailed written record. The purpose of the comments is to inform the elected officials. That purpose is accomplished at the meeting itself.

6 Comments

  1. timi tullis on March 21, 2018 at 9:23 am

    Ann, I explain this to our ex. admins and boards whenever I can… I am sharing this!



    • Ann Macfarlane on March 22, 2018 at 10:56 am

      Thanks so much Timi!



  2. Joe on March 21, 2018 at 12:40 pm

    1) As a regular public commentator, I respectfully prefer a 1-3 sentence summary of what I said. I made the time to research the issue, draft notes, attend, present my notes and listen to the rest of the meeting. I, as a a taxpayer, deserve respect from my elected officials and their staff for rearranging my schedule to attend and comment.

    It is respectfully a deterrent to public participation if public commentators just have their comments not be part of the board members’ deliberations and historical record. I’m sure you don’t intend that.

    2) THAT SAID, I get what you’re saying in that requests to amend the minutes from the general public can become time consuming. I’ve only had to place one or two requests to amend the minutes over the years. I don’t like doing it, quite frankly as it is a burden on secretarial staff.

    3) I also sincerely look forward to your GUIDELINES Public Comment in Local Government. It is desperately needed at a time when federal & state laws have not caught up to today’s situations of trolling, online comments, comments so disruptive other commentators feel they have to address them, and yes minutes that please balance the need to record public comment and the need for an acute summary. I’ve included my e-mail in my signature so I can clarify via e-mail if you wish.



    • Ann Macfarlane on March 22, 2018 at 10:56 am

      Joe, I think that we will just have to disagree on this one. As a parliamentarian, I see the historic record as the record of the actions taken by the body. The elected officials show their respect for the public by listening well, taking what is said into account as they consider their issues, and connecting with the public in other forums.
      I shudder at the idea that public bodies ought to take into account online commenting – I am afraid that such a slippery slope would have no end.
      Thank you for your thoughtful observations, and for your commitment as a citizen to good governance for your community.
      Ann



      • Joe on March 23, 2018 at 3:32 pm

        Thanks Ann, I too now that I think about it shudder at the thought of an online component to public meetings. Too much crazy stuff goes on with online politics as-is.

        Again, I just think an acute summary of what each public commentator said and those comments brought up in the body’s deliberations is best. Respects the time commitment to research, attend and testify and that is NO easy feat – not that sadly all public commentators take their public commentating seriously & respect the space.

        Thanks Ann for writing me back and your many contributions to our public discourse in this region. I have your book in my Amazon Smile cart to read next month and if made Chair of my transit advisory committee next year, I’ll be asking to attend one of your classes.



        • Ann Macfarlane on March 23, 2018 at 4:18 pm

          It will be great to have you in a workshop and thanks again for your thoughtful contributions!