State law puts few restrictions on how municipalities handle public comment at meetings
Many citizens take advantage of the public comment period at their municipal meetings to raise concerns to elected officials or voice opinions on recent decisions.
However, outside of state law requiring a public comment period, there are few specifications regarding how municipalities handle the requirement.
Many municipalities don't have an official policy or ordinance outlining how residents can make public comments during meetings, which can lead to last-minute changes by officials and confusion for residents.
That became apparent last month when Springdale Township decided to prohibit public comment or questions on anything outside of its agenda items.
Residents were outraged about the change and, during its meeting this month, the board reversed its decision.
Officials said they had instituted the change because residents were nearing violence at meetings and they worried there could be a dangerous confrontation, but some residents interpreted the move as a way to silence recent criticism.
The Tribune-Review took a look at how local municipalities handle public comment, and it varies widely.
Some allow public comment only at the beginning of the public meeting, some allow two opportunities to speak and some allow residents to comment and participate at any time during the meeting.
How public comment is handled at meetings is mostly open to interpretation and each municipality's preference.
The state Sunshine Act, also known as the open meetings law, gives the public the right to comment on issues “that are or may be before the board.”
Officials must provide a reasonable opportunity for residents to comment on an issue before a decision is made.
However, municipalities are allowed to set parameters such as time limits for each person commenting.
The Sunshine Act also permits residents to ask questions. And although officials aren't required to provide an answer, the state Office of Open Records states answering questions might prevent future issues and Right-to-Know requests.
The Sunshine Act applies to all state and local boards, councils, authorities, commissions and committees.
State organizations weigh in
Sara Rose, attorney with the ACLU, said they interpret the Sunshine Act “expansively.”
“The Sunshine Act recognizes that public meetings provide a forum for residents to comment on issues of concern to them in their municipality,” she said. “By prohibiting residents from doing that, they're cutting off this avenue for people to bring these issues to the attention of lawmakers.”
Rose said limiting or prohibiting public comments or questions can lead to discrimination against residents who may be critical of elected officials.
It could also violate their First Amendment rights.
“You can certainly require respectful conduct, but can't prohibit someone from saying, ‘I don't like the way you're doing your job,' ” she said.
Rose said municipalities can simply require a time limit for how long residents can speak, so the meeting is still run efficiently while listening to residents.
Rose's comments echo what Melissa Melewsky, law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said after Springdale Township changed is policy last month.
“Public meetings are the best place for residents to bring issues to the attention of their elected officials, who can't possibly know everything that happens in the township,” Melewsky said last month.
Training available, but not required
Outside of understanding the Sunshine Act, local officials are not required to go through any training on public meeting procedures or best practices.
Edward Knittel, training director for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, said it offers training that teaches officials how to run a meeting, how to handle public comment, how to address “hot topics” and how Robert's Rules of Order works.
The association offers webinars, conferences and other training throughout the year.
“We try to remind to elected officials that there are various rules and regulations that they need to follow as well as what the public needs to follow,” Knittel said.
Providing residents a chance to comment is a way to make officials aware of an issue that may be happening and a chance to address it before it gets worse, Knittel added.
“You want to hear from the residents on what their issues are before they become necessarily hot topics,” he said. “It might be the canary in the coal mine-type of thing.”
Rick Schuettler, executive director with the Pennsylvania Municipal League, said outside of making sure municipalities comply with the Sunshine Act, his organization doesn't provide any specific guidance or recommendations on handling public comments.
“We believe everybody should decide that one their own,” he said. “You decide what's right for you.”
Schuettler said the league provides training on Robert's Rules, how officials should use social media and how to handle municipal personnel, among other things.
Many local officials welcome input
East Deer Commissioners Chairman Tony Taliani said the township provides a period for public comment during its meetings, but if an issue comes up or a resident wants to address the board, the commissioners will allow another opportunity for comment.
“What I've discovered over the years is the comments aren't frivolous,” Taliani said. “If someone comes and has a comment or a question, it's almost always very legitimate and deserves attention.”
West Deer gives residents multiple chances to comment during its meetings.
“West Deer has no formal ordinance addressing residents speaking at public meetings, but the board has adhered to the practice of permitting registered comments at the beginning of meetings, as well as a general ‘comments from the public' period at the beginning and end of public meetings,” said Township Manager Daniel Mator.
Lower Burrell Mayor Rich Callender said he sees public comment as “essential” to public meetings.
“I feel that the public has every right to speak their opinion at a council meeting,” he said. “It gives me some of my best ideas. And of course, it also gives us the opportunity to hear the (residents') complaints and to act on them.”