Whether it’s a school board meeting, a city council meeting, or a homeowner association meeting, there are times when the public wants and needs to address a meeting. This is tricky for the public meeting moderators, especially when there is an emotionally-charged issue up for discussion. School budgets, environmental complaints, personnel challenges – these are the kinds of topics that can create unruly public discussions. However, having ground rules for your meetings in place will help organize responses and create an atmosphere of openness,. With a little planning, you can bring order out of what can sometimes be chaos.
The Open Meetings Act (OMA) requires that any gathering of a quorum of a public body where members consider, conduct or advise on public business offer the opportunity for the public to attend and offer input. While public meetings may not be the preference of a board trying to make a difficult decision, they are now a common expectation. Ground rules allow for input from the public, while keeping the meeting moving along.
Have those who want to comment sign in to reserve an opportunity to address the meeting. This gives the meeting organizers the ability to know who will be speaking, if they represent a group with special interests in the proceedings, and how many people would like to speak.
Set a specific time limit of five to ten minutes per speaker so that one or two speakers do not monopolize all of the available time. Decide on the total amount of time that will be allotted for public comment. Have that many spaces on your sign-in form. This means that you will give as many people as possible the opportunity to be heard within a reasonable amount of time. The sign-in sheet will be on a first-come, first-served basis, but be prepared with an option for those who don’t get a time slot in the meeting to be heard. That could be an online form, or even a simple comment box at the public meeting.
Many meeting planners choose to have all public comments at the beginning of the meeting. This prevents a breakdown in moving the agenda of the meeting along. It also allows the board/council members to take notes and to prepare to address comments and questions.
You hope that rules of decorum are not needed and yet it is always a good idea to include them so that the public is aware what behavior is expected. Consider including rules that prohibit profanity, slander, personal attacks, inciting violence, and fighting. Another expectation is that the sergeant at arms will ask someone to leave the meeting if they violate the rules.
Always post and briefly review your ground rules for your public meeting.. Further, by making sure everyone has the same expectations up front you can avoid most of the potential problems. Keep your meetings open and transparent, the public will have greater confidence in your important work.
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