No magic bullet for public comment rules

February 1, 2017

For a couple of years, Bloomfield Township board of trustee meetings had the feel of a raucous WWE event, with a few disgruntled residents and gadflies speaking out on every agenda item, whether they had knowledge of the item or not, as well as at times screaming at the supervisor and other officials from the back of the room. It led to a change to the township's public comment policy, moving them to the beginning of board meetings, with a three-minute time limit, other than for public hearings.

Bloomfield Township was perfectly within its right to curtail public comment to just one part of its public meeting, a practice that many other municipalities follow, and one that the Michigan Township Association and Michigan Municipal League recommend as guidelines for public municipal meetings. Ultimately, civic leaders have a job of running a public meeting. 

The meeting is designed not for public participation, but for public transparency. 

City council, city commission and board of trustee meetings are held as business meetings of their communities, first and foremost. It's the time when the work of the local government is assembled and discussed, and per Michigan’s Open Meetings Act of 1976, “All meetings of a public body shall be open to the public and shall be held in a place available to the general public...However, a public body may establish reasonable rules and regulations in order to minimize the possibility of disrupting the meeting.”

Many other communities, including Rochester Hills, Bloomfield Hills and Royal Oak, also limit public comment to either the beginning or end of a meeting. Other municipalities, like Birmingham and Rochester, take different tacks. In Rochester, there are two public comment periods, one at the beginning of the meeting; the other, at the end, for those who may have missed the beginning, for residents to share thoughts and suggestions. There is currently no time limit on participation. In Birmingham, residents have the opportunity to comment on any agenda item when commissioners consider it. The public can also comment on any item not on the agenda. And while there supposedly is a two-minute limit on public comment, it has been little-seen in recent years, with the commission allowing the public to continue on as they see necessary.

All of these municipalities are in the right – because there is no one correct way for a board to hold public comment. There's no silver bullet that magically works for every single community. Local governments and their elected officials must determine what works for them, at different points in time, in order to get through their agendas and perform the function of running the government for their residents.

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