Why do we have public comment at open meetings?
The Open Meetings Act requires there be a public comment period at open meetings, but does it really matter?
Michigan’s Open Meetings Act (OMA), which has been in effect since 1977, requires public bodies to conduct their business at open meetings. Its basic intent is to strengthen the right of all Michigan citizens to know what goes on in government by requiring these decisions and their deliberations to take place out in the open.
There are three fundamental requirements contained in the Open Meetings Act:
1) All meetings of a public body shall be open to the public.
2) All decisions of a public body shall be made at a meeting open to the public.
3) All deliberations of a public body constituting a quorum of its members shall take place at a meeting of a public body, except for closed sessions.
There are other resources, which go into detail to explain the Open Meetings Act and answer specific questions about its implementation, including previous MSU Extension articles and this Open Meetings Act Handbook produced by the Attorney General’s office.
This article, and ones that follow, will focus on a very specific piece of the OMA: the public comment period. The OMA requires that “A person shall be permitted to address a meeting of a public body under rules established and recorded by the public body.”
Court cases and Attorney General opinions have stated a public body has discretion over when to schedule the public comment, and that they may impose individual time limits for public comment. Crucially, an AG opinion also states the public has no right to address a body during its deliberations on a matter.
This last point is important, because it highlights the intent of the Open Meetings Act, while leading to some useful reminders for both elected officials and their constituents.
Remember, the intent of the OMA is to require public bodies to conduct their business in the open, where the public can clearly see it taking place. The Act does not require a role for the public in that decision-making process, just that the process take place in view of the public.
Being aware of this, both elected officials and their constituents should recognize that the public comment period at an open meeting is not likely the most effective place to work towards a solution to an issue. It can be, as sometimes a public statement spurs action, or perhaps a person simply wants their statement on an issue recorded in the minutes. Those are fine, but if the intent is to engage in a discussion regarding a decision, or to involve the public in the decision-making process, the public comment period is not the appropriate or most effective place to do this. In articles that follow, I will review better ways to involve residents in the decision-making process, and highlight shortcomings of the public comment period.
Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information.