Transparency starts by treating speakers fairly in meetings

Well-managed local units of government work hard to maintain government transparency. By being open and transparent, they present a more favorable view of government to those that fund it through special assessments and general property taxes.

Good governance involves being open and transparent to the citizens that local government was chartered to serve. It means working to have inclusive budgeting processes, making information available to residents and allowing them to actively participate in the process. It also means having meaningful public engagement processes where community input can influence governmental decisions where it is most appropriate, especially in activities such master plan development. But one simple important activity can go a long way to improving transparency. That one activity is treating all speakers fairly at board and council meetings.

Chairs of the various boards and commissions control the agendas and set the tone for public meetings. These officials can create a tone that is welcoming, open and responsive or they can be uninviting, intimidating and unresponsive. Officials can use procedures to establish an inclusive process or they can use the same procedures to be exclusive. In terms of public input, some communities allow multiple times for such input to occur during meetings. Others restrict such input to the beginning or the end of the meeting. The point and amount of input can affect and individual’s perception of that community’s transparency. And in terms of transparency, perceptions of no transparency can be just as bad as no transparency. This can be the case even at times when a community is following all of the procedural rules for the various processes of planning, zoning, budgeting, and decision making on a local level.

In terms of allowing speakers to speak on issues before a decision-making body, it is wise to err on the side of more participation as opposed to less. This, however, does not mean that officials need to allow endless input throughout meeting, but it means that speakers at these meetings should be allowed to be heard in a way that is respectful and considerate.

One common mistake that Michigan State University Extension recommends you avoid is the process of allowing those who agree with the chair more time to speak than those who disagree. This action destroys transparency and gives the impression that the chair is attempting to inappropriately influence process; and that may or may not be the process. Regardless of any opinion officials may have about a project or action for consideration, all speakers should be give equal time.

Speakers must feel that they have been afforded their due process rights to participate in the process. Many of these speakers are residents of their respective communities and the perceptions they take away from public meetings about how fair and open the process was can have lasting impact future actions taken by local decision makers.

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