Participation in a meeting of elected or appointed officials is different than participating in a neighborhood meeting or other, less formal setting. Public meetings are somewhat ritual in their form, partially because of legal requirements, and partially out of tradition, which can make them somewhat intimidating to people who are not experienced with these settings.
All meetings by public bodies are required to provide an opportunity for public participation. This includes both legislative and administrative bodies, such as City Councils, School Boards, and the Washtenaw County Road Commission, and also pseudo-judicial and advisory bodies, such as Planning Commissions and Recreation Commissions. While the particular rules for each body vary to some extent, some general guidelines apply, depending on whether you want to participate in a public hearing scheduled on a particular issue or to address the body on a general topic of concern or interest.
For public hearings on a particular topic
- Determine when and where the hearing will take place. Public hearings are required to post notices prior to the hearing, typically in the newspaper and at the location of the public hearing. In some cases, such as zoning or land use hearings for a site near your home, you may additionally receive a notice in the mail.
- Investigate the topic. Generally, the hearing notice will include a contact who can provide you with more information on the topic. Relevant documents will sometimes be available online or by e-mail; in all cases, you can go to the offices of the body holding the hearing and ask to review these documents. Staff should additionally be able to tell you more about the topic of the hearing and answer any questions about the procedure for the hearing.
- Attend the meeting. Show up at the beginning of the meeting, even if the hearing you want to speak at is not the first thing on the agenda. It is difficult to tell how long earlier items will take, and the agenda may sometimes be re-arranged at the beginning of the meeting.
- Listen to the staff report. Typically, the public hearing will be preceded by a staff member providing an introduction to the topic and explaining the purpose of the hearing.
- Make your statement. Depending on the body and the number of people attending the hearing, you may be limited to to 3 or 4 minutes of speaking, or you may have more time. Do not expect a response to your comments - typically, the body will wait until all public input has been heard, and then discuss the issue.
- Watch the discussion. A decision of some sort is usually made at the same meeting as the public hearing. If not, you can contact a staff person to ask when the decision will be made.
For general comments
- Find out who to make your comments to. Different bodies have different responsibilities, and your comments will be most effective if directed to the people who can take action on your input. For example, comments about the school system should be addressed to the School Board and not to the City Council or Township Board. If you don't know who the right body is to talk to, make a guess and call up the offices to ask - tell them what you'd like to talk about, and ask whom you should be directing your comments to.
- Find out when and where the next meeting is. You don't have to wait until a certain meeting to make comments - you can provide them during the general public participation segment of any public meeting. In some cases, such as the Ann Arbor City Council, you may have to sign up before the meeting to talk at the beginning of the meeting. In other case, you may only have to show up.
- Make your statement. Depending on the body and the number of people who typically make comments, you may be limited to to 3 or 4 minutes of speaking, or you may have more time. Do not expect a response to your comments - typically, your comments will be answered later by staff people, if at all.
In all cases
- Be direct. Figure out before you speak what you want to say, and try to limit your comments to a few key points - you want to be sure that everyone is clear what your point is, and not overwhelm them with too much detail.
- Be polite. The people you are talking to are only people, after all. They will understand if you are upset by something, but no matter how understanding they are, they will be turned off if they feel as if they are being attacked personally.
- Address your comments to the public body. Even if your comments are a response to something that another person has said, you should be facing and talking to the public body, and not to the audience or to staff members.
- Prepare a statement in writing. If you have something longer to say than will fit in the few minutes allotted on the agenda, prepare a written comment to present to the board. You may be able to get this comment added to the public record if you get it to the board secretary early enough.