Quick tips for speaking at a public meeting

by Colleen O'Connor Toberman

Your city or township officials make a lot of decisions that affect your life. They oversee development decisions, parks and environmental ordinances.

What I love about local decision-making is how accessible it is: It's essentially neighbors getting together to solve issues close to home. It's easy to participate and make a real difference. 

One of the best ways to make a difference is to speak at a public meeting, such as a city council or town board meeting, a planning or parks commission meeting or a community forum. Fair or not, decision-makers often listen to the people who show up at meetings more than they listen to other kinds of input. 

Here are our best tips for speaking at meetings.

Check the agenda

There are two different times in a public meeting that you might be able to speak. You'll see these listed on the agenda, which is usually posted in advance on the city's website.

For certain kinds of decisions, like changing city ordinances or approving development plans, the city is required to hold a public hearing. But if there's not a public hearing on the agenda, some meetings will include an "open forum" or "community comment" time, often near the beginning of the meeting. This is a time for residents to speak about any topic that concerns them, whether or not it's on the meeting agenda.

The meeting chair will make it clear when it's time for the public to speak and will usually ask you to come to a podium or microphone so everyone can hear.

Be brief

You'll be asked to keep your comments brief. Two minutes is a common time limit. Come prepared with a short outline or practice your remarks in advance if you're concerned about the time limit. 

If you have more to say than can fit within the time limit, you can write a letter. You can send your letter to the city before the meeting if you want the council or commission members to see your comments in advance, or you can bring printed copies to distribute at the meeting. Then use your speaking time to briefly summarize your written comments.

Share why you care and what you want

You'll be asked to start your comments by stating your name and address; this is a standard part of public record-keeping.

You should also share why you came to speak and why this issue matters to you.

It's helpful to think about what you want the decision-makers to do in response to your comments. Do you want them to make a change or vote a certain way? Be clear about what you're asking for and why. 

And it's okay if your comments repeat what someone else has already said. In fact, it can be powerful for leaders to hear that several of their constituents all want the same thing. 

Be respectful

I always encourage speakers to be respectful and constructive. You have the right to state your opinions, and of course it's fine to disagree with public officials. But if they feel really attacked, they might be less likely to listen to you.

Remember that these folks are your neighbors who have stepped up to serve their community and make complex decisions. They're often unpaid volunteers. So whether or not you agree with them, try to show some appreciation for their hard work.

Bring a neighbor

The best way to make your comments powerful is to show that other community members agree with you. A big demonstration of support or opposition really makes an impact.

So bring a neighbor to the meeting with you! You can provide moral support to each other and also make it more likely that you'll see the results you want.

We're here to help

We want you to feel empowered to make a difference for the Mississippi River. Please get in touch with us if you'd like more advice about preparing to speak at a public meeting. We're often at these meetings, too, and would love to see you there.

Contact FMR River Corridor Program Director Colleen O'Connor Toberman, ctoberman@fmr.org, 651.222.2193 x29.

And to hear about opportunities to speak up for the river in your community, become a River Guardian today. We'll contact you when important river issues arise.

River Guardians are also invited to special happy hours and other events about key legislative and metro river corridor issues.