Public comment at open meetings is frustrating the public

Is there a better way?

A recent question was sent to MSU Extension Educators regarding a Michigan Planning Commission. The writer was frustrated about public comment. They stated, “At tonight’s planning commission meeting, there was frustration both by the commissioners and the public that we can’t “have a dialogue.” They went on to explain, “Their policy is that citizens speak during citizen comments and the commissioners remain silent, and the commissioners then speak and the community must remain silent. When I hear them saying what I think are false things, I always want to jump up and correct them. Likewise, when they think the public is saying something wrong, they also want to correct it immediately. However, the way they have set up the rules, we cannot have that dialogue. I understand that a ‘dialogue’ can get out of hand quickly if things are not handled well. Are there any techniques that allow for a two-way conversation during a meeting? 

This document by Attorney General Schuette helps to provide clarity around Open Meetings in Michigan. It outlines in simple, understandable language the details of the Open Meetings Act (OMA).

Upon review, notice there is not any rule that says members of the public body cannot ask the speaker questions, clarification, detailed citations of sources and so on. Of course, the public body’s own bylaws may have such a rule, but if that is not working for them, they can change their bylaws (or suspend them for that particular part of a meeting if bylaws allow this). It may also be helpful to include in the bylaws that any time limit for public speakers does not include the time taken to respond to questions, clarifications, citations, etc.

Additionally, a Planning Commission has a very broad authority to create committees, much more than many public bodies. This is in part because Planning Commission committees do not even have to be members of the planning commission. They have the ability to form a committee of whomever they want (including speakers presenting at public comment) to hold study sessions and in-depth discussion on a topic. The committee still has to follow OMA, and a committee is always responsible to the planning commission. However, the committee can have detailed dialogue on an issue and provide its recommendation to the planning commission. One option is for the Planning Commission to name a chair as opposed to the group voting on one at their first meeting.

A series of articles called “Following the Proper Rules”, for an Open Meeting, Special Meeting or Public Hearing may also help provide some direction and insights for effective public comment.

Michigan State University Extension Educators can provide your organization with assistance in learning more about parliamentary procedure. The Government and Public Policy team also offers training for elected and appointed officials for improved effectiveness in several areas, including various public policy issues and effects of government programs, regulation, incentives, strategies and more. By working together with local elected and appointed officials, and interested citizens, MSU Extension is able to provide education on critical local and state issues. To contact an expert in your area, visit MSU Extension’s expert search system or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464). 

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