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Public meetings and public comment: A guide for newly elected officials

By Maura J. Hoff.

If you have been elected to a public office, congratulations on winning the trust of your constituents to handle the government’s business on their behalf.  And condolences on now having every decision you make either cheered or criticized and over analyzed in the public eye. It is an honorable decision to serve your community. So what can you do to perform your job well and not end up with egg on your face in the local paper?

First, have a clear agenda and rules of procedure for your elected body to follow.  Many councils, boards, and commissions in Indiana simply “default” to some version of parliamentary procedure, which may or may not be applied properly.  Those who officially follow Robert’s Rules of Order may not have anyone trained in this procedure or even a copy of the most recent version of these Rules to follow.  They may not realize that some of those Rules don’t work for their group, yet they fail to make their own special rules that do. Every elected or appointed body should start their term by reviewing any existing rules and then working with their legal counsel to amend or draft local rules of procedure that work for your community.  This often includes a catch-all clause to have Robert’s Rules cover any procedures you have missed or intentionally disregarded in your local special rules. Having clear guidelines for your procedures keeps you from taking action in error that may later be overturned and cause serious issues for your community.

A major consideration in drafting these local rules is whether you want to allow the public to comment during your meetings.  There is a major misconception that you must allow citizens to speak; under Robert’s Rules and Indiana law, public comment is not required during a public meeting.  (Caveat: public comment IS required during a public “hearing” which is distinguished from a public meeting.)  Indiana Open Door Law requires that you allow the public to attend and observe your meetings  – nothing more. Ask yourself whether allowing public comment at your meeting aids you in getting your business done.  Does the public have other methods of contacting you about issues of concern? Do you make yourself available to your constituents by providing a public email address and phone number?  Do you post and share the issues you are considering on your public social media profiles? The public’s biggest complaint is “we didn’t know this was even happening!” Information is key and when timely provided, prevents over-reaction and inaccurate assumptions. Furthermore, if the public can reach you by email to share their opinion, the need to make a big show at a public meeting is reduced.  

Many citizens also incorrectly assume that a public meeting is the time to ask questions of their elected officials or force them to make statements “on the record.”  Keeping public comment off the agenda altogether stops this problem. If you feel you must allow it, consider putting it at the top of your agenda and limiting the comment period to 2 or 3 minutes per person.  Simply allow comments to be made, say thank you, ask for the next speaker. Do not start the precedence of engaging in debate with your concerned citizens; you will never “win” and it creates a tense atmosphere.  If you don’t believe me, do a search online for council meetings gone wrong and you’ll find many awkward, funny, and astonishing examples of ineffective meetings and wild “concerned citizens.” By the end of a meeting, everyone is tired, impatient, and has been building up for their chance to speak.  Comments at the end of a meeting tend to be more negative, more controversial, less respectful. A tip I have seen applied very successfully, in addition to having public comment at the start of a meeting, is to add some kind of feel good agenda item immediately before public comment. This ranges from recognition of a completed Eagle Scout project in your town to a community service award to a veteran’s organization to inviting the local champion softball team to your meeting.  In the shadow of these great things happening in your area, people are less likely to launch minor complaints in overly negative manners and sets the tone for positive thinking and responses.

You were elected because a majority of the community thought you would make good decisions on their behalf.  Make the first of those good decisions be establishing a clear set of rules of procedure that will allow you to do the job you were elected to do in the most efficient and positive manner.