Most of you know what I do: I sit at the entrance of community meetings, ask you to sign in, and then I record your comments. (I decided that I would come up with a very simple way to explain to children what I do) I do a lot more than this, however for the sake of this blog entry, we will keep it simple.
I’d like to think I’m almost an expert on “public comment” as I’ve written about it a couple of times. In reviewing my calendar I noticed that everyone should be planning for “public comment” opportunities galore come this fall.
So, I’d like to offer some tips. In the interest of full disclosure I am always excited to see people come to community meetings. I think community meetings are educational opportunities, examples of community participation, and a great way to meet your neighbor. However, usually the reason for people to attend a community is that a project may (or may not) be moving forward, and you might (or might not) like it. Either way, I am genuinely glad to see you take time out of your busy schedule to just be in the present. (Que the Cheese Factor)
So turn the ringer off on your phone, feel free to Twitter and text away about what you are seeing and hearing.
1) Take your time signing in. You took the time to make it to the meeting, take the time to record your attendance. If you walk in the door, arms full of stuff, you should feel free to set your stuff down on the table, and neatly write your name down. Have kids with you? Feel free to get them settled and come back. Before you leave the table, make sure you have all the materials for the meeting (the agenda, comment form, speaker card, and fact sheet).
2) Even if you are late, browse the boards (if there are any). Usually staff lingers in the back of the room, and you should feel free to engage them. It is a rare staffer who doesn’t like to talk about the project they are working on.
3) Sit Close! It must be human nature to want to sit in the back. Resist this urge. The closer you sit to the front the more likely you are to see the details of the presentation, connect with the speaker, and not get distracted by those wiggling around in the back.
When it comes time for the Question/Answer portion of the meeting, know that it’s just as nerve-racking for the presenter as it is for you once you get to the microphone. Based on watching numerous Question/Answer sessions, here are my suggestions:
1) Take notes. During the presentation, write down what your questions are. You can use the comment form for this. Once you get up to the microphone, you might have 2 minutes to get your question out. Don’t spend your two minutes at the microphone formulating your very important question.
2) Don’t expect an answer. This is the toughest part about community meetings. Your question is important, however it is likely when you ask your question, the person won’t have an answer. This is especially important during “scoping meetings”. The whole purpose of a scoping meeting is to find out what needs to be studied. So, when questions and comments are asked during the scoping process – you are essentially asking someone to study and get back to you. (Which then goes back to you signing in – being able to read your contact information is key)
3) Just because you see a timer, this doesn’t mean that you need to race through your time. The purpose of the timer is to ensure fairness for all – not to limit questioning of a project. Take the time to say your name, and then get into your statement.
If you see a court reporter, recording your comments verbatim – using your regular speech pace is a good idea. Since you know this isn’t a race to get in all the words you can, just slow down. If you run out of time – no worries: If you took my suggestion from above, you can just submit your notes into the comment box.
4) What if there’s no court reporter? Then know that the meeting is either being recorded with an audio recorder, or there are 2 or 3 staff members in the back feverishly writing down your comments. I often bring a recorder and take notes concurrently.
5) If you don’t like to speak at the microphone, ran out of time and you still had things to say, or you don’t feel ready to speak at the microphone, you can still send in your comment to the project. Check for a project website, an email address, or phone number. If it doesn’t seem obvious where you can send in your comment, come back to the sign in table, or connect with the presenter…someone will know.
6) Maybe you missed the meeting or came late there are a couple of ways to get caught up on a project. The first is to locate the project website, and review materials from there. If the website seems out of date, check for contact information, send an email and find out where you can find out more information. If you can’t find a project website, search on the internet for it. Not all projects have websites. Sometimes you can find a group for or against a project that is able to put something together. Facebook is another good option.
Still stumped on trying to find a project website – well I guess you could always email me, and I’ll take a look around.
Websites not for you (however ironic that you are reading this website) then consider contacting the agency leading the project, or your elected representatives.