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A primer on ‘public comment’ in council meetings

There have been a number of contentious issues to come before the city council in the past year. Short-term rentals, incorrect communication about the Republican caucus, pet breeding permits, off-highway vehicles on city streets.

Each of these issues has resulted in a large number of residents and other concerned parties wanting to make their thoughts known.

Welcome to the process known as “public comment.” For those new to the process, here’s a short primer.

First, what public comment is not. It is not an opportunity to engage with council members directly or to start a debate or argument.

“The purpose of public comment periods is for the body (in this case, City Council) to hear from residents about the issues important to them. Best practices adopted by many communities recommend that the council members listen, thank the speaker for their time, and don’t engage in dialogue with the speaker,” said City Clerk Tami McKay.

To quote from the boilerplate portion of a printed/posted council meeting agenda, “Each person has five minutes to speak at the discretion of the Mayor/Chair. Comments made during the Public Comment period of the agenda may be on any subject. All remarks shall be addressed to the City Council/Board as a whole, not to any individual member of the Council/Board, of the audience, or of the City staff. No person, other than members of the City Council and the person who has the floor, shall be permitted to enter into any discussion, either directly or through a member of the Council without the permission of the Mayor or Presiding Officer. No action may be taken on a matter raised under this item of the agenda until the matter itself has been specifically included on an agenda as an item upon which action will be taken.”

That last part is a big reason for council members to not engage. It lessens the chances of anyone filing a complaint alleging a violation of open meeting laws. A statement from city staff on the matter read, in part, “Public comment is an opportunity for the public to share their concerns and provide feedback to the City Council. There are two public comments set aside per the Open Meeting Law (NRS Chapter 241).

The first time set aside for public comment is for matters related to an item on the agenda, and the second is for any matter. The public body can choose to engage in discussion, but the statute does not mandate discussion with the public. City staff recommends against it for many legal reasons.

First, the Open Meeting Law requires all matters to be discussed to be properly noticed on the agenda prior to the meeting, and discussions during public comment have the potential to stray from topics on the agenda. Second, the First Amendment provides members of the public with many rights to speak their mind.”

Discussion during public comment could have the potential to lead to members of the public feeling as though their speech was limited. Staff is always available to answer questions, and members of the public can contact their council member directly outside of a meeting to discuss their concerns if they wish.”

Said now-former City Manager Taylour Tedder, “Many of the questions from residents are best answered by staff, as they are the subject matter experts on the issues coming before Council. I always make myself available to answer questions after meetings and residents are welcome to reach out to me anytime either by email or phone call.”

Staff also noted that Boulder City has held meetings on a variety of issues in the past year, from short-term rentals, to wastewater, to strategic planning. These are led by staff; elected leaders exercise great caution to avoid deliberation. Each Council member is accessible via email – their contact information can be found at www.bcnv.org/941/Meet-the-Council.

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