Give and take required on public comments

Of all the complexities that come with running a public meeting, how to handle public comment often causes the most consternation.

After all, council members have Roberts Rules of Order to turn to when it comes to their own participation, but they're generally on their own when setting rules about hearing from the public.

The Town of Bluffton recently brought up tightening its rules on public comment. The town requires people to fill out a card with their name, address and subject for comment. Now it wants to set a deadline of 6 p.m., the time the council meeting starts, to turn in those cards. Arrive late or decide after 6 p.m. that you have something to say, and you would be out of luck.

Balancing decorum with the public's wish to comment on the day's business can be difficult, but it can be done. And it can be done with an eye toward the main point of it all: Hearing from the people you represent, the people who have a stake in the decisions you make.

Here's what seems to work: Limit comments at the beginning of a meeting to two to three minutes; ask people to sign up ahead of time and set a deadline for doing that; allow comment on agenda items, with the same time limit, that doesn't require notice of your intent to speak.

Those guidelines keep any one person from monopolizing the public comment period; give people a chance to comment on something that may or may not be on that day's agenda; and allow people to contribute something on a topic discussed during the meeting.

Bluffton officials could collect cards ahead of the meeting, with a deadline of 6 p.m., for the first comment period and pause to collect cards for their second comment period if they think cards are necessary for that. If passing cards to the mayor as they come in during the meeting disrupts the proceedings, don't do it.

Hilton Head Island requires people who want to speak on a subject not on that day's agenda to sign up by noon of that day. But the town allows people to speak on agenda items as the council takes up that topic during the meeting. In years past, people were frustrated by not having a chance to weigh in before the council voted on an issue. This was the town's answer to that.

People who want to comment should make every effort to meet the deadlines for signing up, especially if someone wants to say something about a subject not on that day's agenda. Knowing how many people want to speak ahead of time helps public officials plan for that meeting.

But elected officials should welcome input on what folks hear during the meeting, too.

With a little effort on everyone's part, meetings can run efficiently and the public can have its say. And it can be done in a way that best suits the individual community.