I used to advocate for the need for three-minute public comments, but what I have found over the years, and for some reason this year in particular, is that three minutes is too long. For the last several weeks I have been churning this around in my mind – ever since the school board meeting where 40 people got up to speak, the public comment last an hour and a half and at least the last 30 speakers said the exact same thing as the first ten.
I remember lying on my couch on February 6, sick beyond belief, but dutifully watching the council meeting on Nishi. Public comment was an interesting revelation. Robb Davis as mayor has implemented an interesting system – he has one minute speakers come up first, then two and finally three.
That night the difference was stark – the first twenty or so speakers were all one minute. Many were students and others we had never seen before. They said their piece. Many of them simply came up to say they were in support and sat down. I found it very effective. Then the usual suspects came up – those folks who speak every week – and they had to have their full three minutes.
Personally I found that the one-minute speakers were far more impactful than the usual suspects, who say the same things every week and drone on and on.
This year, during the council elections, I covered three candidate forums extensively. That generally meant transcribing verbatim each answer. Some forums had two-minute speaking limits and others had 90-second speaking limits.
I found that as I was transcribing it was far easier to do with the 90 seconds. Okay, that might be obvious.
But the more interesting thing I found is that the answers were actually better for the 90 seconds than the 120 seconds. Why? Well 90 seconds is more than enough time to explain one’s position, but 120 seconds turns out to be too much time, so to fill it they ramble and go off-topic.
This informs the way we should do public commenting, because, for most things, the speaker can convey the message – particularly on a land use project – in 60 to 90 seconds.
Want to vote by numbers – there are ways around that. You can have each person come up and say I support/oppose the project and do it in less than 60 seconds. You can have one spokesman have a longer talk and speak for a broader group.
Robb Davis has five people come up in order to get five minutes. But what about structuring the public comment on an issue with two sides, and have each side select a spokesperson who speaks for ten minutes with a show of hands?
There are other ways to handle this as well. I was impressed by how efficient the discussion on West Davis Active Adult Community became when Brett Lee put a motion out there to have a time certain for the end of discussion. They ended within ten minutes of that time and the discussion didn’t feel abbreviated.
A second option is to simply reduce the time for public comments. There are two ways to do that. One way is to limit the public comment period to 30 minutes. You can invite those who wish to speak for a minute up there with the understanding that they lose time but gain certainty. And you can push the rest of the public comments to the end of the meeting.
A third option is to simply limit public comments to 90 seconds. There are times when the individual has important details that will take longer – emails and handouts can address that. Those who need immediate action should be encouraged to submit their comments in advance. The council could even develop a public comment app to make it easy for the public to submit their comments in real time and in advance of an item.
A fourth option would be to assign spokespeople who will have a designated period of time and be able to poll their audience. The rest of the speakers would then get a limited time to make additional points.
It is not that I am against public commenters – it is simply that I believe many of the public comments are ineffective if not counterproductive.
Here are some things that I think the governmental body looks for and what are effective comments:
- A public commenter who has a specific concern or issue that no one is aware of. I do think that coming to speak is more effective than just writing an email – though if the city or school district were on top of things, it should make no difference.
- In a big item they are looking at how many people are speaking, how engaged the audience is, and which side they are on. So they might notice that 30 people came to speak on Item A but no one on Item B. By the way, they also notice emails on a given topic as well. Numbers may be more important than content.
- With respect to content, there is an exception to Point 2, which is the novel piece of information. For the most part public conversations evolve (devolve?) into talking points. Talking points become predictable and monotonous. At some point (which is why I suggest one speaker, ten minutes), everything is repetitive. However, there are exceptions where some people have unique circumstances or points of view that rise above the din.
- Yelling, threats, insults, strong emotions are not effective. Sometimes they look contrived. Even when they don’t, it is easy to discount someone getting emotional over most items of business. Threats and insults tend to discredit the speaker. There are exceptions to every rule, but, for the most part, the more logical and dispassionate, the more effective.
One thing I have seen both the school board and city do is have the presiding official explain the rules. Explaining the rules in advance is vital because what angers people is if they feel they are getting shortchanged. The more the rules are explained in advance, the more the rules appear fair and impartial.
Finally whatever the rules are – be consistent. Some people cut off speakers right at the end of their time, some will allow them to finish their thought, some will allow them to drag on. The first two to me are acceptable, the third one invites trouble. Whatever they decide, though, be consistent.
My preference – shorter public comments and more use of alternative ways to get the information to the governmental body. Explore an app system that can allow for public comments to come in both in advance and in real time.
—David M. Greenwald reporting