What should you do when you want to share ideas with your city government? How should you bring a complaint to the ears of the people elected to represent you?
One of the great things about government in Montana is that everything dealing with public money, from official elected government all the way to appointed and temporary committees, everything must be transparent; Montana state law requires it. All meetings where official business is considered and discussed, with a quorum of the elected or appointed members present, must be open to the public. This doesn’t mean that the audience is allowed to join the discussion and debate at every point of the meeting, but it does mean that all deliberation must be done in the potential view of a public audience and the audience has the opportunity to speak up and speak out. The only time a public audience is not allowed or required is when a board will discuss personal matters involving an employee of the organization or active litigation.
Often titled “Public Comment” on the official business agenda, this time looks different depending on what meeting you go to. Some groups place public comments at the end of the meeting, others at the beginning, others in the middle. Some boards provide only one scheduled portion of the meeting for the audience to speak while others allow the audience to provide comment during the official discussion and debate of each item on the agenda. Some groups restrict the public comment time to only items not on the meeting agenda and other groups give unrestricted opportunity for a person to speak about whatever they desire. Whichever way it’s organized, the same basic allowance must be offered at every meeting; you get a chance to listen, watch, and speak about issues of public interest associated with public funds.
Years ago, the Colstrip City Council meetings were organized to allow public comment to occur right before the old and new business was discussed. The comment time was open to items on the agenda and items off agenda. In the last two years, this has slightly changed. Now the audience is provided a formal time to speak on issues not related to items listed on the meeting agenda and then provided a second opportunity during the Council’s discussion and debate of a business item.
When you attend a council meeting you will receive a printed agenda and be asked to sign a guest book, whether you plan to speak or not. You will see “Public Comment” listed on the schedule, usually the third or fourth item; just before the old and new business begins. When the time arrives for Public Comment, the facilitator/chair of the meeting, most often the mayor, will announce something like, “We have now reached the Public Comment time of the meeting. Any members of the public wishing to speak may do so at this time.” Pretty simple, right?
Now it’s your turn. To speak, you simply stand up and walk to the podium and microphone in the front center of the room; the order of who speaks is determined on a “first come first serve” basis. At the podium, take a few seconds to gather your thoughts, then look at the mayor (who will be directly in front of you), state your name, your physical address, and tell the council what’s on your mind. It’s that easy (if you overlook the nervous jitters and dry mouth you may feel; but that’s normal!).
Formal meeting etiquette dictates that you should speak to the whole council instead of just one person. However, may feel more comfortable speaking to the facilitator of the meeting (i.e. the mayor) instead of speaking to the whole council. This is helpful if you are nervous; as it provides you with a central focal point. The formality also helps keep a professional and constructive tone during the meeting (this is really helpful during a tense discussion). You state your name so that everyone knows who you are and it provides a level of accountability to the discussion. Although anonymous statements are useful at times, it’s always more helpful for someone to stand by and own their comments. You state your address to indicate whether you live in Colstrip or are visiting from another location.
The general rule of thumb is that you will get two to three minutes to speak, but this depends more on the size of the audience and the amount of people wishing to speak. In a less crowded meeting there is usually not a strict time limit. You are guaranteed at least one chance to speak. Speaking a second time, however, is a privilege granted by the facilitator or consent of the council members as they choose. Again, public comment is not designed for debate and rebuttals, but for comments and sharing of ideas.
Don’t worry about getting into an argument with the mayor or a council member. The formal rule is that the council and mayor will remain quiet while you speak. Even if you ask a question or make an accusation, don’t be alarmed if no one answers you. This is the way it is supposed to work. The public comment time is not for dialogue between you and the elected officials, but rather a time for the elected officials to hear you. Usually, if you ask a question, the mayor will provide a short answer or advise you of a better time to meet with an official to receive more details. This is extremely important because it can get ugly quickly if everyone started debating and arguing. The goal is to provide you a time to speak with little fear or concern of rebuke, correction, or challenge.
After the formal public comment time ends, the council will move into the old and new business. When the council enters discussion and debate of a business item, the mayor will provide more opportunity for the audience to participate and ask questions or make statements. However, even though the council members will debate and argue over an issue, the audience is not permitted to join the debate or argument. A person in the audience is allowed to make a statement either for or against the item and to ask questions which may or may not receive a direct answer. The council members are not supposed to start an argument with you. This is a time for you to persuade or convince the council to your perspective on the issue, but not argue with them.
Are you ready to speak up and speak out? Let me know if you have any questions or ideas to add.