public participation rules for cities
April 13, 2017 5:34 PM   Subscribe

The city council of our small city (7000) has recently assigned the deeply-distrusted-but-powerful city manager to come up with rules for public participation in city decisions. This request follows an annual meeting of the Virginia Municipal League (VML), at which newly elected officials go through an orientation process.

In the wake of some controversies, I asked the VML if I could get copies of handouts from that meeting; finding that I am not a city official nor do I represent a company, they abandoned the conversation.

I'm guessing that the rules they're recommending tracking the capital city's rules, adopted just last year. Those read as follows below. But my question is: is there some sort of ALEC-type movement, organized or not, to limit public participation in governance? or am I being overly suspicious? The city's planning contractor did recently recommend barring public comment (apparently, where a result was mandated by law, but still). If this makes sense in a large city, is it still reasonable for a small town? Much of the "comment" in one recent conflict was behind closed doors and in a very expensive ad campaign, and was won 100% by the corporate player. Do some cities make an effort to level the playing field, eg by having council members hold office hours in, say, city hall, for this purpose? Should the public be able to participate in making rules for public participation? I'm more interested in how things are done out there in the world, rather than in scholarly articles. Thanks for any insights.

"Citizen Comment Period
The Citizen Comment Period is an opportunity for citizens to address Council concerning the services, policies, and affairs of the city and to discuss issues not on the agenda for the business meeting. However, you must schedule your appearance with the Office of the City Clerk no later than 12 noon on the date of the meeting. Each speaker is generally allotted three minutes to make their comments.

An individual may appear before Council during the Citizen Comment Period no more than four times per year and no more than once within a three-month period.

Guidelines for Citizen Participation *
--The maximum time allotted to persons speaking to any matter under consideration by the Council shall not exceed 30 minutes for the proponents and 30 for the opposition.
--Speakers should state their full legal name, any organization(s) they represent and any economic or professional relationship(s) that would benefit by the adoption of the paper(s) they are addressing.
--Speakers will not be permitted to address or question the Chief Administrative Officer, the City Attorney, the City Clerk, or any staff member directly.
--Questions should be directed to the President, who may at their discretion, solicit a response.
--Applause is permitted during the Awards and Presentations Period only.
--Persons speaking to Agenda items shall be limited to three minutes. However, no individual from the public may speak for more than 10 minutes total during the business meeting.
--Citizens may express their views in writing in lieu of an oral presentation."
posted by mmiddle to Law & Government (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
First, I am not currently living in Virginia and do not know what the VML is, but they could be subject to FOIL or a similar sunshine type law that would require them to hand over the documents.

Second, I would find out if your Council meetings are meetings held in public or public meetings. In NY, there is a distinction.

Third, I attend a lot of both local Town Board meetings and school board meetings. I happen to think the rules are reasonable. In no particular order, municipal meetings are not press conferences and sometimes the answer to a question is not readily available. Submitting them in advance or at the meeting for a later answer is reasonable. What would be unreasonable would be the elected officials to not direct an employee to respond at some point or they themselves refusing to address the question in some form of response.

Limiting the total time to 30 minutes per side is also reasonable. I have seen some boards ask that you not repeat what was said by previous speakers. To me, it would only be limiting participation if there were no other means to address the board or council. If you can write an email to them, post a letter, make a phone call or talk to one of them in person, then limiting a speaker to 3 minutes or total speakers pro or con to 30 minutes a side is reasonable. They have a meeting to run that often requires them taking action on town business. They should be able to do that. I have seen some boards have two public comment periods. One at the front of the meeting to comment on any agenda item and another at the end to let people have their say.

What I have seen is that the public often mistakes a meeting of a council or board as a platform for them to either speak to the cameras, to speak to their supporters or to speak in some way to people other than the board itself. It is not a platform for grandstanding. If one truly wants to communicate with the board, I have found that the best way is a well thought out email that is reasonable in length that lays out the reasoning in simple steps for whatever it is you think is best, to be the best choice.

Applause being limited to awards and presentations makes sense too. One, it is often a time saver. Two, it can be intimidating to other speakers and the lack of applause the same thing. All the public should be able to have input, for or against. Just because there may be a more popular opinion, a board should not limit through intimidation of the majority inadvertent as it may be, speech. In reality, what is the penalty for applauding? They tell you to stop or they will adjourn. Not much more than a slap.

I have also seen boards limit to three minutes and no speaking again until everyone who wants to have a say has done so. Also reasonable. THe truth is, if you cannot make a public point in three minutes or say 2 3 minute speeches, you probably need to refine your thoughts or put them in writing.

It is my opinion that the public should not have a direct say in the rules other than ensuring there is some way to participate at a meeting even if that is limited or be able to submit opinions or go during an office hours.

Having said that, in NY, there are sunshine laws that require certain debate or discussion to be held in public. For example, for a school board, everything but personnel matters for privacy sake and legal matters have to be held in public. If a majority of a board is ever together in one place conducting business for that board or talking about an issue related to the school, they need to call a meeting and hold it in public. Certainly, a majority of the board can get together without a meeting being called if they are not debating, discussing or acting on school business. An example would be a social gathering or a meeting of the PTA that they all attend to watch a speaker.

The other thing to know is that if someone is sending emails or something in writing to a board, that is not behind closed doors and in fact is most likely subject to FOIL. Test it. Ask the council for all emails and/or communication to or from the contractor during a set time period.

So, in my opinion, while the rules seem to be set up to try to limit comment, I do not think they do and do not think they are unreasonable. YMMV.
posted by AugustWest at 6:10 PM on April 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

Out here in the world, in a small town (not city) near where I live, population 12,000, public participation in the Selectboard meetings (that's what they call the town council here), is similar to the Citizen Comment Period you quote, except that you don't have to check in in advance; you just raise your hand and are recognized. There are no limits on how many times you can speak per year. The Selectboard also opens the floor for public comments during the meeting on questions as they arise.

But this is in New England, where ultimate authority resides in the Town Meeting consisting of all citizens, so the right of public comment is pretty much taken for granted.
posted by beagle at 6:11 PM on April 13, 2017

The only part I think may be unreasonable is "An individual may appear before Council during the Citizen Comment Period no more than four times per year and no more than once within a three-month period." What if many items of interest come up in the three-month period? The notice by 12 noon is a bit exclusionary, but as long as your city council is diligently posting notice and agendas in advance, it's not overly onerous and probably defensible.

In my experience small city government is way, waaaaaaay more prone to grandstanding local cranks who turn up every. week. during public comment periods than big-city government is, and have a harder time shutting them down on because instead of hundreds of interested parties they have six interested parties so they have very loose public comment rules. (Like, my school board had a guy who came every. week. and complained about the sidewalk repairs. We were not in charge of sidewalks. When we would rule him out of order, he would refuse to give up the microphone and it's a bad scene to have the cop take it away. When we refuse to let him speak about sidewalks, he sued. He FOIAed us every 14 days or so about sidewalks, then would file a complaint with the state AG when we replied "Yo, we're not in charge of sidewalks and so have no relevant documents to give you." OVER AND OVER. EVERY TWO WEEKS.) Anyway, the point of my parenthetical is, small-city governments should also follow best practice rules about keeping people on-topic and not letting people ramble on pointlessly.

Just a personal opinion, applause during public comment is AWFUL and it's tacky as hell. It makes people with minority opinions afraid to address the council. It takes away from the time of speakers who have something to say. It takes away from the democratic spirit of hearing people's arguments and weighing their merits by turning it into a cheering match. And frequently the WORST PEOPLE with the WORST OPINIONS are able to turn out the most irrational applauding friends and it distorts news coverage and it is just terrible. It's not a concert, it's governance, and applauding is tacky. That's a GOOD guideline.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:25 PM on April 13, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm in a Michigan township w/a 48K pop. and some of our Board of trustees meetings have similar rules to what you've posted above. Here's a clip from the local twp. website (a little sloppy as it's a pdf I copied & pasted);

Procedure to address the Township Board
Citizens wishing to address the Township Board on a topic not on the agenda, but one that could be reasonably considered to be Township business, shall be permitted to do so prior to the “Consent Agenda” portion of the meeting.The following procedures will apply to Citizens Comments:
a)Speakers will be permitted only one opportunity to speak during the Citizens Comment
portion of the meeting.
b)Any one who wishes to speak shall make his/her desire known to the Supervisor (or Chairperson) in writing stating name, address and topic to be discussed. To be considered, this request must be submitted prior to the meeting being called to order.
c)The length of each presentation will be limited to 3 minutes.
d)The total length of time permitted for Citizen Comments will not exceed 15 minutes.
Name: Address: Telephone: Subject: Signature: Date:
Residents may address the Township Board on the topic under discussion, subject to the following conditions:
1.The Supervisor (or Chairperson) will first determine that each member of the Board
present has had an opportunity to express their opinion on the matter under
consideration. Then, before a vote is taken, the general audience will be allowed to
address the Board.
2.Comments will be limited to the topic currently under consideration.
3.In order to permit as many speakers as possible, initial presentations will be limited to two minutes. If time permits, a citizen who has already spoken will be permitted one minute for rebuttal or additional comment. Individual members of the general audience will be permitted to address the Board for a total of not more than 3 minutes on a topic.
4.Public comment on any one issue will be limited to 15 minutes. If the Board wishes, the 15-minute time limit can be extended in increments of 10 minutes by a majority roll-call vote of the Board members present.

I've watched many board meetings on the local access cable channel and it appears the board is genuinely trying to allow all who wish to speak the chance to speak, but they do hold it until all current business is conducted and they agree the meeting portion is over. Then they let the speakers have their time to talk. They have NEVER answered questions to speakers at this time, however if the speaker writes a question or concern to the board well before the meeting they make an honest effort to address it during the meeting.

Now to your situation. It sounds like most of their rules are currently accepted practices. The behind closed doors stuff and refusal to get you a copy of what the new VML members were trained on, is really really stinky to me and I'd be on that until I was satisfied. Be polite at all times but be persistent-you aren't asking for anything they have reason to deny you. I'd start with the VML members themselves, they represent you and should be open to discuss this with you. If you don't feel you're getting the truth-do you have a decent local paper who might be interested in this? If so get in touch with them right away, press might help nudge them along to daylight. When you say a corporation was given private access and the public had no opportunity to speak their minds on the subject, that worries me. You're right to be concerned.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 6:42 PM on April 13, 2017

I attend a lot of city council meetings in a city slightly smaller than yours, and I was relieved when they got a visible timer for public comments. Even if everyone present agrees with somebody and thinks their opinion is relevant and important, if they haven't edited their comment down to a three-minute statement, it's excruciating. Give or take on the three-minute rule--they're not all that strict about it, even when it's someone who's a frequent enough participant to know the rules, but appealing to the timer's the simplest way to get everyone home at a reasonable hour without hurting anyone's feelings. (Feelings are important. Nobody bothers to show up for this stuff unless they have strong feelings or they're getting paid.)

The rule against allowing questions is related--it's much easier to address a citizen's concern if they say what it is instead of asking questions that may or may not help. And nobody likes to be put on the spot, public official or not. Usually when it's a matter that can be addressed at the meeting, they do so right then. Otherwise, they promise to look into the matter (often assigning to the department responsible, like public works) and get back to the person with assistance later.

Much of the "comment" in one recent conflict was behind closed doors and in a very expensive ad campaign, and was won 100% by the corporate player.

That doesn't sound good. It would be reasonable to ask for an explanation of the decision-making process and why it wasn't held in public. It's possible that the answer you'll get is similar to the result-required-by-law one, in which case it would be worth considering whether it's just the result you disagree with, or the law that required it. In the latter case, is it be something within the council's power to change?

I don't like the requirement to sign up by noon at all. My city has public comment periods at the beginning and end of meetings, and you just need to sign up right before the meeting for the first one and during the meeting for the last. Are there normally a lot of people interested in commenting but unable to do so, or are there already so many people commenting the meetings run late into the night? Have you been unable to comment because of this? If so, the thing to say in the three minutes you get at the next meeting should be "I couldn't sign up to comment in advance of the last meeting because [totally normal circumstance like, y'know, having to work somewhere other than city hall] and would like you to consider changing this rule so that I and others like me can speak." You could also email or write them in advance about this.

FWIW, the very first orientation my city gives to new public officials is provided by its insurer (municipal insurer, covers most cities in the state) and is mostly about open meetings laws, conflicts of interest, and FOIA. It's essentially the "please don't get us sued" class. My state's municipal league offers a longer orientation and training program for elected officials that looks very similar to Virginia's from the outline. It's not free (cities pay dues to the league), and that may be why they're not giving you copies of the training materials. Some of the training they provide is available to the general public, but they charge for it.
posted by asperity at 7:53 PM on April 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

You might want to examine whether the meeting violated the Open Meetings Law in Virginia.
It doesn't sound like it did, but you may want to look at that, and remind them of this law.
When my town has items that Council knows will generate a lot of public interest/comment, they often schedule a special session just for that. Each speaker is limited to 3 minutes, but there's no overall limit. Maybe you can encourage your council to do something similar?
Do you know the council-person in your district? In such a small town, it should b relatively easy to get a meeting with that person, and express your concerns directly. That's often the best way to get results, but YMMV.
posted by dbmcd at 11:22 AM on April 14, 2017

IAACPC, but IANYCPC (where CPC = City Planning Consultant) and I've developed civic engagement strategies and run a lot of public meetings all over the country. I agree with the others that the limitations you describe are are both common and fairly reasonable, although I too have quibbles. However, no one has yet addressed what might lie behind your CPC's recommendation to forego public comment or why the VML refused you the handouts. My thoughts may not be on point since you didn't describe the CPC's project and I don't understand what you meant by Much of the "comment" in one recent conflict was behind closed doors and in a very expensive ad campaign, and was won 100% by the corporate player, but there are several circumstances in which this approach is legitimate...
  • First off, not all city planning contracts address future development patterns, regulatory tools, and other topics where citizens should have a say in how the work will affect their community's future. Some city planning contracts that deal with certain measurement activities or methodologically-driven analyses are completely technical e.g., completing traffic counts, gathering environmental data, completing a recreation needs assessment, or conducting a fiscal impact analysis. Opening up these projects to public comment is rarely helpful and can be spectacularly unhelpful, as when community members make suggestions that are either out of scope or methodologically unsound. For example, both well-intentioned members of the public and people attempting to game the public comment input often do stuff like offer up anecdotes about their own street/park/neighborhood as if they were data, present their fringe opinions as the majority point of view to influence the analysis, assert that the study is pointless because the answer is "common sense," invoke other communities that aren't actually comparable as shining or terrifying examples of the outcome they expect, attempt to re-litigate the selection process, question the project's previously approved budget, etc. In this situation, the CPC is forced to reject the ideas proffered (preferably respectfully and in a manner that explains why) and the appointed/elected officials squirm; it's uncomfortable for everyone and gets the project off on a bad footing. To combat this problem, CPCs usually hold two public comment oppys: at the beginning, where the message is "Here's what we're going do and why. Any questions?" and at the end, when it's "Here's what we found out, what it means and what we recommend happen next. Any questions?" In the middle, the staff and the CPC get the work done, but it can seem like they're going to ground if there's no proper PR program to reassure the public that everything is proceeding according to plan.
  • Another typical approach, particularly for complex matters, uses a committee as a proxy for most public comment. For example, if the contract is for something like a Master Plan or a Zoning Ordinance, it's going to take a year, maybe more, and encompass numerous intertwined issues. Establishing a committee which will stay engaged throughout the process avoids the common issue with public comments: an uninformed citizen who hasn't been following the plan's development closely questions a premise or decision settled months earlier. Here too, the efficient path forward entails a) assembling a knowledgeable committee that represents different viewpoints, neighborhoods, issues, etc. and includes at least one elected official b) priming the public for intermittent participation while also being scrupulous about making interim work products and meetings public/ available and then c) updating and listening to the general public at tactical points in the process only. At the end, the committee makes a recommendation to the planning commission which then either sends it back for more work or recommends adoption to the council or other elected body.
  • Some city planning contracts entail dealing with confidential matters. In Virginia, this situation is especially common due to the proffer system. In Virginia and elsewhere, I've been hired to interface with developers and companies considering building in a community. It's understood that both sides want the deal to succeed; with a go-between, the first application will be more likely to be close to the mark vis-a-vis what the community will find acceptable. If the project's not going to work, it spares everyone a long and painful process that will lead to failure and solidify citizen opposition to all development. The developer is, of course, always free to pursue the project anyway. Either way, if an application goes forward all of the usual public comment rules and practices apply. In a similar vein, CPCs also advise on retaining other firms, e.g., to implement a project or provide a specialist's perspective. That becomes a procurement matter, which traditionally takes place behind closed doors (if a committee is making the choice) or in closed session (if it's an elected or appointed body). This approach enables the decision-makers to let down their hair to the CPCs and shield their negotiating/selection strategies, but it's also preferred by the CPCs and, again, the public is unlikely to offer any advice that is both helpful and unbiased. There are exceptions where, for some reason, the community decides that the interviews should take place in an open session of, say, the city council or the planning commission. I've been in this situation where the consultants all agreed ahead of time not to sit in the audience and listen to each other's presentations, but I've also watched my competitors take notes on my approach/price/schedule (benefiting them in the future when we're competing elsewhere) and seen the contract go to the last firm on the agenda, because they benefited from watching all the predecessors answer the interview questions and seeing how the client reacted.
  • Finally, many city planning matters raise legal implications vis-a-vis local, state and federal law, existing contracts/agreements with grantors and other funders, and the potential for expensive and/or risky litigation. Dealing with these situations rightly takes place behind closed doors.
Regarding the VML's refusal to give you a copy of the handouts, contrary to one of the posters above, this isn't shady at all. VML is an association that works on behalf of its members, which are municipalities and their officials along with "Municipal Business Associates," which are companies that work with communities, not you. They are not a public organization and are under no obligation to share anything with random citizens. For all they know, you represent a competing organization that wants to take their IP. Now, if you were refused by your community, that's a different matter entirely but it may be that keeping the materials confidential was a condition of taking part in the workshop.

It's terrific that you're getting involved in your community's planning matters and asking these questions. Rock on!
posted by carmicha at 3:04 PM on April 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

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