Good for you! Too few people do this, but it’s a critical part of the local government process. You’re never going to get any uninterrupted time to speak straight to your federal representatives, and probably never your state ones, either. But your county and city boards and commissions are wide open (and let’s face it, the future is local). So good on you for wanting to get in there and speak your mind.
You’re probably fired up about whatever your topic is, and that’s good. You’re probably also a little nervous about public speaking. Most folks are, and that’s okay. Here are some tips for making your point and keeping your cool.
First, remember that the usual rules of first impressions apply. You don’t need to show up to a board meeting in your Sunday best, but come on: put on a clean shirt and groom yourself. Don’t let your appearance be a distraction from your point.
Second, read the rules and know the agenda. Whatever board you’re talking to has rules about public comment, and is almost always legally obligated to post both those rules and every meeting agenda ahead of time. Read both. There are three things you should be watching for: agenda items, public comment, and time limits. We’ll get to time in a bit. For now let’s talk about agendas and comments.
When you speak to a government board in person (which is to say, physically in the same room), you’ll probably have to fill out a card. That card will ask if you want to comment on a specific agenda item, or if you just want to be lumped in with “public comment.” Read the agenda. If your subject is on there, be sure to note that agenda number (or letter, or whatever) on your comment card. The board will call on you to speak when that item comes up in the agenda. If you just want to vent at the board and/or your topic isn’t on the agenda, then mark your card for public comment.
This matters for a couple of reasons. It’s normal for a ton of fired-up people to clog up the public comment section of the meeting without reading the agenda. They’re talking about agenda items, but they haven’t done the research to know how to fill out their comment card. It can mean many people line up to lambast the board, but not during the part of the meeting when the board will be thinking about the topic. So if you want to increase the chance that you get truly heard, read the agenda and fill out your card right.
Note that calling in is typically an option, too. Reading the board’s rules about public comment will let you know how to use that option. It could mean sitting on hold a while, or it could mean needing to learn how to use Zoom or some other webtool. Whichever way, learn the process so that basic procedural issues don’t sink your comment before you even get started. If this process is unclear, by the way, then this needs to be a focus of your activism. Don’t let your local electeds shield themselves behind confusing rules. Lack of transparency and limited public access are fundamental pieces of almost every government ill. Speaking out is the only way to cure it.
Third, stick to one point. You’ve only got two or three minutes, and it’ll be gone before you know it. Practice what you want to say and stick to that. Don’t think you’ll wing it once you’re at the mic. As you wait your turn, you’ll probably hear somebody else say something cool you wish you had thought of, or say something frustrating that you totally disagree with. Resist the urge to make game-time modifications to what you’ve got to say. If you start adding stuff on the fly, you’ll run out of time and won’t make the point you actually came to make.
Fourth, mind your time. The commenting procedure rules probably say you’ll get three minutes to speak. Plan for two minutes instead. This is important for two reasons: it’ll keep your point tight, and if lots of people show up then the board might limit everybody to two minutes instead of three just so they can get through everybody. Don’t hog the mic. Other people want to speak just as bad as you do. And if you run over time the board will cut your mic and stop listening anyway. Be ready for that--hit your one point hard and be done.
Fifth, understand that the board can’t respond. In nearly all jurisdictions, it’s pretty much illegal for them to debate with you or answer your questions during your comment. That’s not mean or tyrannical. It’s a protection--it helps prevent a mob from bullying the board into doing something stupid. So don’t include questions in your comment (at least not questions you want answers to). If you have a real question, call your local government representative’s office and get your answer. Don’t grandstand during public comment and try to draw your rep into a public debate. You’ll lose.
This also means that your comment won’t bring on a miraculous moment where the board gives you a standing ovation and votes then and there to do whatever it is you want. That only happens in the movies or on TV. Real life government moves much slower, and that’s a good thing. Accepting that is important.
There you go. Five tips for a successful public comment. Happy speaking!