When Public Comment is Challenging
December 19, 2014
Ann G. Macfarlane
Category: Guest Author , Public Participation
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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