Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Local Township Boards and their Rules For Public Comment & Participation

The Rules For Public Comment for communities public boards are at times a source of contention between the community's government and the citizens.  Especially when they are seen as heavy handed and when they are enforced to stifle public input from the residents of the communities.  Some rules may even be in violation of the The Michigan Open Meeting Act
I will be reviewing the rules from multiple townships and cities in the Mid-Michigan area.

BRIDGEPORT TOWNSHIP Board's infamous "3 minute" rule for speaking during the public comment period has become well known throughout the country.  You are only allowed 3 minutes to speak at the beginning of the meeting, before any agenda items have been discussed.
In the beginning of May, Bridgeport Township Board also updated their rules for any citizen that requests time to be put on the "Agenda" portion of the meetings.  Their new rules state:
"Person or Delegations wishing to be placed on the Agenda
1.  A individual or delegation desiring to appear before the Board may request placement on the agenda by making such request in writing to the Township Manager and/or presiding member of the Township Board no less than seven (7) business days before the meeting at which the individual would like to speak. The request shall include, at a minimum, the following information:

a. Name of the person or the delegation affiliation, whichever is applicable.
b. A detailed summary of the topic to be presented or discussed.

2.  The individual making the request will be notified by the Township Manager and/or presiding member of the Township Board as to whether the request has been granted and, if the request is granted, will be provided three (3) minutes to speak, when the individual’s requested topic is addressed on the agenda, unless extended by the presiding officer.

3.  The Township Manager and/or presiding member of the Township Board shall take appropriate steps to determine that requests that an item be placed on the agenda are not frivolous, repetitive, or harassing in nature.

4.  Delegations must select only one individual to speak on their behalf.

5.  Individuals speaking to the Board shall address remarks only to the presiding member of the Township Board.

6.  The presiding member of the Township Board shall have the authority to terminate the presentation of any individual who does not adhere to the above rules or is abusive toward an individual Board member or the Board as a whole.

7.  The presiding member of the Township Board, members of the Board, and the Township Manager may ask questions of any individual addressing the Board

In the rules posted above I have highlighted in red the portions I have a problem with. 
#1  You will only be granted 3 minutes to speak if you are granted the privilege of being placed on the agenda.  I would think the whole point of requesting to be allowed to speak during the agenda portion of the meeting is so you have longer than the 3 minutes that is granted during the regular public comment period to address your issue.  So it would appear that there is no longer any point in requesting to be put on the agenda portion of the meeting in Bridgeport.  
#2  They will decide if your request is "frivolous, repetitive, or harassing in nature". Their interpretation of those requirements could lead to just about anyone being denied the privilege of being put on the agenda. 
#3  "The speaker shall address remarks only to the presiding member of the Township Board".  We elect 7 members to our board and we have no King.  If I ever get up to speak, I will be addressing all our elected members, not just one.
#4  It should only be by the approval of the entire board that any citizen speaking at a public meeting can be removed, not by just one member.  If I got up and said "We elected you and are paying you to do your job and we don't feel you are" .... well that could be interpreted by the presiding member to be abusive and away I will be drug by the police.

Now I will highlight a few points from some of the surrounding townships.

SAGINAW TOWNSHIP Board's rules state that "Citizens may address the Township Board on any subject during the "Comments from the Public" portion of the agenda and on agenda items before they are acted upon by the Board"  also, "For most agenda items being considered, individuals will be limited to 4 minutes each and a total of 20 minutes will be the maximum time allowed for any particular agenda item in the public discussion segment. Major issues may be allotted additional time when considered necessary by the majority of members of the Board present".  
The only problem I have with Saginaw Township's rules is the 20 minute maximum time limit allowed -- they may be in violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act with that time limit.  The Open Meeting Act states that  "But a rule limiting the period of public comment may not be applied in a manner that denies a person the right to address the public body, such as by limiting all public comment to a half-hour period".

TITTABAWASSEE TOWNSHIP Board rules also allow for a opening public comment period and for a extended public comment period.  In the opening public comment period you are only allowed 3 minutes and the presiding officer or a board member may request a vote on the question of termination of the comments of any individual for exceeding the three minute limitation, if they disrupt the decorum of the meeting, or if they if the speaker tends to get personal or vindictive.  At least it is also done by a majority vote, not just by one member.  They have the extended public comment period so as to allow for citizens to expand on their remarks if they need more time or for those arriving after the opening public comment period.

THOMAS TOWNSHIP Board rules states that they have a public comment period and it is towards the beginning of each meeting and the citizens are limited to 3 minutes.  But they do also state that once you have addressed the board with a matter you can rest assured that someone will get back to you in a week or so to discuss the matter with you in more detail.

KOCHVILLE TOWNSHIP  Board appears to just have one public comment period towards the beginning of their regular meetings, not sure of the time limit on that.  When looking at the minutes from their meetings it does appear they have a very active public comment participation period.

RICHLAND TOWNSHIP Board also has two public comment periods, one at the beginning and one towards the end.  It also says that they can speak on agenda items before they are acted on by the Board.  The rules state that individuals will be limited to 5 minutes each and 20 minutes time will be the time allowed for any particular agenda item in the public discussion segment.  Richland Township may also be in violation of the Michigan Open Meeting Act with the 20 minute maximum time limit rule. 

FRANKENMUTH  Their rules are a little different than most other townships. They require you to sign up on a Public Comments Registry form prior to the meeting.  They request you sign your name or state who your representing if not yourself and also if you are a City Of Frankenmuth resident.  Not sure why they want to know if you are a resident or not, that won't disqualify any citizen from speaking if they are not a resident.  I'm not sure at what point in the meeting the public comment period is but you are limited to 3 minutes.

BIRCH RUN TOWNSHIP Board also has a form on their website to request to address the township board.  Not sure if that is a requirement or not to be allowed to speak.  I couldn't find any rules for the time limit for speaking during the public comment period but from looking at their board meeting minutes it does appear they have two public comment periods, at the beginning and the end.

CHESANING TOWNSHIP  Board has a public comment period at the beginning of the meeting and a extended public comment period at the end of the meeting.  Also if a public hearing is scheduled during the board meeting they will have a public comment period then too.  They state that even though they have a 2 minute time limit on the public comments, they usually allow a longer comment/discussion as long as it doesn't interfere with the regular board business.

CITY OF SAGINAW  The city also has a form to request to speak at the board meetings and they have a deadline it must be filled out and turned in by to be able to speak.  Each speaker will be limited to 3 minutes  unless the Council shall by majority vote extend that time.  Speakers shall address their remarks to the Council as a whole, not to individual Council members.  

There are some good procedures in the above listed rules from the other townships that I would like to see enacted at the Bridgeport Township Board Meetings.  Having two public comment periods instead of just one at the beginning, and when there are important agenda items being voted on there should also be a public comment period allowed then before the board votes on the items.  There should also be at least a majority vote required before any citizen is removed from the public meetings.  The entire board should also be allowed to vote on whether a speaker will be granted more time to speak than the allotted 3 minutes. 

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