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When Public Comment is Challenging


December 19, 2014 by Ann G. Macfarlane
Category: Public Participation , Council-Commission Advisor

By Ann G. Macfarlane, PRP

This fall I had the privilege of working with planning directors from across the state at their 25th annual conference in Chelan, Washington. Our focus was on keeping things on track when folks are rude, crude or confused, particularly during public comment sessions. At the end of the day, I asked the participants to share the most valuable thing they had learned from our work together. Readers may enjoy these excerpts from their comments:

  • Public process and debate are improved when the presider is deliberate and clear.
  • Formality helps to depersonalize issues.
  • I learned the importance of both responding to comments that deserve clarification, and passing on comments that deserve no response.
  • It is acceptable practice to refute misleading public comments from the dais.
  • Staff has the ability to interact in a hearing to correct what was said.
  • It is important for electeds to refute – calmly – attacks on staff.
  • Be assertive about correcting the record and maintain decorum. Recognize emotion is part of the deal.
  • In the face of hostile remarks, stay calm, stay connected and don't roll your eyes!
  • Language tips: keep it formal but warm, phrase things in the positive, provide lots of information, and strike the word “but” from your vocabulary.
  • A greater emphasis on following good process can help focus efforts and save time.
  • Provide a brief written explanation to the public that sets forth rules for making public comments.
  • Emotional connection is crucial in a meeting, but stay prepared with formal rules of procedure when insults fly.
  • I learned how obvious the rules for an efficient meeting are, but how hard they are to follow.

Many thanks to the city and county planning directors of Washington for the opportunity to explore this issue together. I welcome comments and observations from readers – what have you found to be most effective in structuring your public comment sessions?


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About Ann G. Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane writes for MRSC as a Council Commission Advisor.

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments, and blogs regularly at www.jurassicparliament.com.

The views expressed in Advisor columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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