The right to attend and be heard at public entity meetings is baked into state laws and democratic traditions. Public engagement enhances a board’s understanding of issues and can build essential support for the board’s initiatives. Public officials benefit from the opportunity to directly address criticism and questions rather than putting out brush fires resulting from rumors and misinformation. From listening to experts’ presentations and board dialogue the public gain insights and understanding that can better inform input to the board and viewpoints shared throughout the community.

But the reality of democratic participation at meetings can be public comments that are redundant, ill-informed, serve a narrow agenda or behavior that is disruptive and damaging to democratic norms. However, public entity governing boards that have adopted appropriate culture, rules, structure and meeting decorum can avoid undesirable outcomes and leverage public engagement for success.

Culture. If commitment is superficial and merely for show, public bodies tend to default to behavior and practices antithetical to effective public engagement. To imprint authentic public engagement on the organization’s DNA, a values statement should be adopted by the public body affirming its accountability to voters, residents, inhabitants, stakeholders or whom or whatever else is appropriate; it should acknowledge transparency as a core value and welcome public input.

Boards often also adopt standards of civility such as those provided in Robert’s Rules of Order. Public bodies should consult with their attorney prior to adopting public comment rules, especially those limiting public comment content. Rules must be uniformly enforced, but giving all speakers opportunities to finish a sentence or wrap up can convey a positive impression.

Rules. Enforceable rules must be adopted by the public body, according to Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, to stipulate how long a member of the public may speak, how many times they can speak on a single issue, and where in the course of business public comment will be permitted.  Public comment should follow presentations and board dialogue but prior to taking a vote to allow the public the opportunity to become informed, improve the factual basis of subsequent public comment, and give board members an opportunity to consider other views and opinions prior to voting.

Structure. Public meetings serve different purposes such as routine matters, hear presentations from subject experts and other interested persons, share perspectives, and deliberate and vote. Meetings should be structured to achieve success for the paramount purpose. Meeting planners should consider the impact on the public from visual and audio logistics, room comfort and seating arrangements, particularly for public hearings intended to focus on collecting and documenting public input.

Decorum. To create the desired environment to facilitate civility at formal meetings operating under formal parliamentary procedure, everyone in attendance should be addressed with proper titles or terms of respect and avoid using first names. Moderators should make a statement welcoming the public’s engagement at the beginning of every public meeting where the public is in attendance and explain the board’s rules for public participation. Speaking time limitations should be explained as intended to facilitate public participation rather than limit it. The public should also understand when during the meeting public comments will be invited. Less formal public participation protocols can be appropriate when the public body is meeting informally as a committee of the whole and the people in attendance are staff and others who have a heightened interest and knowledge to share with the board.

Board members should maintain eye contact with each speaker, avoid side conversations and negative body language such as eye rolling, sighs, smirks and arms folded across one’s chest. When confronted with adversarial public comments, some moderators respond with intimidating body language or verbal admonishments instead of politeness and grace, elevating the speaker’s anger and turning other attendees against the board. Moderators and other members of the board need to demonstrate emotional maturity and calmly remind participants that civility and decorum is expected and will be enforced.

It should not be the public body’s objective to get through public comment as quickly as possible but to allow people to feel heard. Neither the moderator nor other board members should argue with anyone in the audience, but the moderator should provide short and appropriate answers to questions or provide assurance of prompt follow-up to allow for research and appropriate response. Other board members wanting to respond to a question from the audience should do so through the moderator without directly engaging with the audience. Every person addressing the board should be thanked for their comments.

 Before committing to a crucial decision that the board previously vetted, the maker of the motion or some other knowledgeable person should provide the public with background information and how the board arrived at this particular resolution. Acknowledging concerns and suggestions offered by the public throughout the deliberation process and explaining how and why the proposed decision addresses those concerns will go far to assure the public that their elected officials seriously considered their input.

Regrettably, more people have recently disrupted local government meetings to advance their political agenda. The guidance offered here is intended to address meetings where everyone adheres to the rules of engagement. Disruptors are not all the same. Some may be upset about an issue that directly impacts them or that offends deeply held values. Others feel betrayed and trust government institutions, and others want to draw attention to themselves to score points with others sharing their views. Effective responses vary and depend on the disruptors’ specific issue, motivation, intent, intensity and their desired result. Disruptors win when they goad public officials to respond in kind with anger or other internet-worthy behavior. The good news is that disruptors eventually lose interest and if the public body handled the situation appropriately its credibility and public trust will remain intact.

For more ideas to improve public participation, see Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) recently report Rethinking Public Engagement (https://www.gfoa.org/materials/rethinking-public-engagement).

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