Guidelines for Public Comment in Local Government
The public comment period is an essential part of local government meetings. These are our guidelines for public comment periods in local government. They refer to ordinary business and work or study meetings of councils, boards and committees. Public hearings and quasi-judicial hearings are governed by different rules.
It is important for elected officials and for the public to be very clear about the purpose of the public comment period. This is an opportunity for members of the public to inform the governing body about their views. The meeting itself belongs to the governing body. The public does not PARTICIPATE in the decision-making. Instead, it PROVIDES INPUT to the governing body, which takes the input into consideration in making its decisions.
A governmental body must craft its requirements with care in order to to preserve the free speech rights of its citizens. If questions arise about the public comment period, consult your attorney. State law and regulations and your specific bylaws or rules of procedure have higher standing than Robert’s Rules of Order, other parliamentary authorities, or these guidelines.
- Establish specific periods for public comment during your meetings, in a way that is consistent with your community’s expectations and customs.
- Set a length of time by which each period will conclude, unless the council votes to extend it.
- Set a time limit for each individual to speak.
- Speakers may not give their time to other people.
- Provide printed copies of the guidelines and expectations.
- Review the guidelines at the beginning of each comment period if necessary, and explain that this is the time for citizens and residents to express their views in order to inform the council. Explain that the council will not engage in dialogue with the public during this time.
- The council has the right to set limits on what subjects may be addressed, how long public comment will be, and how many times people may speak. All such limits must be viewpoint neutral: they must not favor one point of view over another.
DURING PUBLIC COMMENT
- Check your state law as to whether you may require speakers to give their name and address.
- Require all speakers to address their remarks to the chair.
- Require all speakers to keep to the time limits. It is important to be consistent for the appearance of fairness. Some jurisdictions provide a visible public timer, so the speaker knows how much time is available.
- The chair should thank each speaker, whether positive or negative.
- In general, it is best not to respond at all to public comment. However, the chair may provide brief factual information, if appropriate. This must not degenerate into lecturing or criticism. See our blog post, “Don’t get into back-and-forth exchanges during public comment.”
- The chair must not under any circumstances enter into back-and-forth exchanges with the public. See our blog entry below for more information.
- We recommend using surnames to address speakers. If you use first names for some speakers, use them for all.
- Councilmembers refrain from speaking during this portion of the meeting.
- Have staff ready to note input or questions from the public and to provide responses at a later date. Do not call on staff to give public answers on the spot.
- Model courtesy and respect and encourage members of the public to do the same.
- The public has the right to make critical and harsh remarks. Courts have consistently found that public bodies may not require members of the public to follow the rules of decorum that apply to council members themselves. (See our blog entry below for more information on decorum rules.)
- Members of the public do not have the right to disrupt the meeting. However, mere words most likely do not constitute a disruption in themselves. All concerned should become familiar with case law on this point, and be able to determine when conduct becomes truly disruptive.
- The council may prohibit demonstrations (booing, hissing, clapping). These can be chilling to discourse and inhibit free speech, both on the part of the elected officials and of the public.
- Consult with your attorney and develop an action plan for steps to take in case of disruption. The League of California Cities has excellent material available on their website. In cases of serious disruption, state law may allow you to adjourn the meeting to a different location.
- Be very cautious about ordering a disruptive member of the public to leave the meeting. It may be advisable to give three warnings to cease from the disruptive behavior before taking any action. Consult with your attorney before doing this.
RESPONSIVENESS TO THE PUBLIC
- The body language and manner of the chair and other elected officials are critical to running successful public comment sessions. Councilmembers should listen to each person speaking as if there were no one else in the room.
- Councilmembers should keep an interested expression on their faces and refrain from checking electronic devices, whispering to each other, or otherwise demonstrating lack of interest in what the public is saying.
- It is helpful to see oneself on video in order to gauge the impression given to the public. We recommend a facial expression that projects warmth and genuine interest. If a speaker is highly negative, it is appropriate to keep a neutral, serious expression. Do not frown, grimace, sigh, or roll your eyes.
- It is vital for elected officials to be responsive to their public, and to appear responsive. Given the limitations on the public comment period, we recommend establishing other channels to connect with your public, such as community forums, personal discussions, “coffee with the mayor,” a form on your website, surveys, etc.
- The council has the right to invite anyone to speak whom it wishes to hear from at other times than the public comment period. This is done by unanimous consent or a majority vote.
- Provide clearly marked paper inviting individuals who are not heard during the public comment period due to time constraints to provide written comment for the council.
- We recommend that detailed public comment should not be included in the minutes. It is sufficient to say, “Public comment was given.” See our blog post, “Don’t include detailed public comment in meeting minutes.”
Thanks for these guidelines. They’re equally helpful on both sides of the dais. I’m certainly going to start calling out boardmembers who are, “Demonstrating lack of interest in what the public is saying.”
We already talked about minutes. So moving upward and onward, as to, “The council has the right to set limits on what subjects may be addressed, how long public comment will be, and how many times people may speak. All such limits must be viewpoint neutral: they must not favor one point of view over another.”
I wish you said something more specific like what some are doing about restricting to agenda topics. That’s something I support – restricting public comment to what’s on the agenda saves time & money – and shows respect to the taxpaying citizens who made a sacrifice in time and money to attend to give quality public input.
I’d also love to see transit boardmembers have some, “other channels to connect with your public” that are truly meaningful like a coffee or a Town Hall. A webform or “e-mail the Board” isn’t sufficient methinks.
But otherwise, thank you again. Clearly you put a lot of time and effort into this. You’re a timeless resource.
Joe, I’m happy to know that you find these guidelines helpful. Yes, we’ve invested quite a bit of time and thought in this project, as there isn’t anything else out there on this topic, as far as I can see.
I agree completely about limiting comment to agenda topics! We’ll keep that in mind for the second edition!
With gratitude for your passion and thoughtful response – Ann