So you’re fired up about something happening in the city or your neighborhood and you want to speak up about it, right? Great! A big part of living like you live here is being invested in what’s happening down the street and around the 305.
But when you head down to your local city or town hall you: a. feel overwhelmed, b. try to voice your concern but feel stymied or c. you’re told that you could’ve just stopped by city hall during business hours instead of rushing over after work.
Or worse yet, you find out the item you came to discuss won’t even be covered.
Well, as part of our Civics 101 series, we want to help you avoid those kinds of pitfalls so you can voice your opinion, be well informed, and not be daunted by the bright lights or the long dais at city hall.
Ok, I want to speak up at a meeting. What should I do?
First things first, make sure you double-check the structure of that particular government’s meeting agendas. Some cities place the public comment section all the way at the end of a meeting agenda. So if you live near city hall, maybe just watch the livestream at home and then head over when it’s convenient for you. It could save you some time and frustration.
Also, make sure you double-check the agenda if you’re interested in a particular discussion item, ordinance or resolution (more on that in a sec).
Some cities also require people to sign up ahead of time with the clerk, or on a sign-up sheet, before they speak at a meeting. Make sure you check with the clerk or a staff member so you don’t miss your chance to make the list. For example: Miami-Dade County has an office of agenda coordination.
Cool, I know which item I want to speak on. What’s next?
Well, you’ll want to see where it is in the process of being approved by that city. And you should check if it’s a resolution or an ordinance.
Resolutions are usually pretty open for public discussion. They’re often declarations or directives to staff, not new laws or formal changes to a law in the city’s charter. Some cities will even place them on a consent agenda — usually a list of more boiler-plate items like board appointments and things like commemorations of holidays or special events. These items are typically approved all at once and not with individual votes or discussion.
But resolutions can also involve city finances, grant funding, and executing legal agreements or settlements that have been negotiated by staff members.
Ordinances are a little trickier. They require two votes at two separate meetings by elected officials (unless it’s an emergency), and the first reading is where public comment has the most sway. Elected officials can suggest amendments to the proposed law before taking a second vote. They can also factor in whatever you and the other speakers suggest.
But typically when things get to the second vote on an ordinance they’re more set in stone. And while public comment is still allowed, it’s not usually given as much weight as it is with the initial vote.
Ok, what if I can’t make it in person?
Some towns and cities allow for folks to submit comments via email ahead of time, and Miami Lakes provides options for folks to record video messages or connect through a Zoom video call to remotely leave comments during meetings.
And beyond commission meetings?
While commission meetings might seem like the end-all, be-all, if you want to be heard on an issue, that’s far from the case. Most big development proposals require neighborhood outreach, and before items reach a major meeting agenda, they’re usually discussed by advisory boards and committees.
So if you get word about a big project or are just trying to get a heads up, make sure to check the agendas for things like historic preservation and planning or zoning board meetings.
What else should I know?
Most cities won’t give you more than a minute or two to speak during a public comment period, so make sure you’re to the point and have your script ready. Seriously, if public speaking and improv aren’t in your skill set, it won’t be frowned upon if you’re reading off your phone or a piece of paper.