Cities and towns each operate under their own policies regarding public input at council meetings.
There are at least three key facts to remember, according to longtime municipal attorney and former president of the South Carolina Municipal Attorneys Association Danny Crowe:
- A public hearing is different from a time set aside for public comment.
- A council meeting (except when it conducts a public hearing) is a business meeting of the council.
- State law gives councils the authority to set their own rules of procedure, as long as those rules don't conflict with state law.
Is a public hearing ever required? Yes, in specific cases the law does require public hearings before a municipal council can take certain formal actions, said Crowe.
For example, there must be a public hearing by the council before council adopts an annual budget (S.C. Code Section 6-1-80) or before the adoption of a "new service or user fee" (S.C. Code Section 6-1-330).
No blanket right to speak
State law does not require there to be a public comment period at council meetings, and there is no guaranteed right for the public to address the council at the council's business meetings, said Crowe.
"Any requirement for public comment periods arises from the council's own rules of procedure or from the municipality's own ordinances," he said. "These local rules and municipal ordinances, of course, are subject to amendment by the council."
Usually councils that provide for public comment periods allow them at a point in the meeting before council's consideration of ordinances and resolutions, said Crowe.
"This recognizes the concept that public input may be beneficial to the council's considerations and may impact council actions," he said.
Bottom line: Council meetings are business meetings of the council.
Five minutes, balanced arguments
"There may be concerns that some members of the public may be long-winded or may get out of hand," said Crowe.
"For these types of reasons, a number of councils have adopted rules or ordinances that formalize the ability and discretion of the meeting's presiding officer under standard parliamentary rules to limit the time, number and conduct of speakers."
Councils commonly limit comments to two to five minutes or limit the number of speakers on a particular side of an issue, so that a specific argument is not aired over and over again.
To encourage civility in public discourse, some municipalities have adopted rules or ordinances that specifically authorize the presiding officer to stop public presentations that the chair or a majority of council determine are uncivil, contentious or disruptive, according to Crowe.
'We use a timer'
Some towns, such as the Town of Port Royal, regularly give residents set opportunities to be heard.
The town offers two scheduled periods per council meeting for members of the public to speak. The first one is for anyone who wants to speak about an agenda item. The second period, held at the end of the meeting, is for anyone who wants to speak about any subject. A member of the public may choose to speak during both periods.
Each speaker is limited to two minutes, and speakers sign in on a comment sheet, which asks for their name and address and a short sentence about what they wish to speak about. Forms are provided and once completed are passed on to the mayor before the meeting.
"We use a timer and usually everyone respects their time limit," said Tanya Payne, municipal clerk for Port Royal. "Occasionally someone will go over the limit. If it gets to the point of abuse, the mayor will ask them to close their statement. This has always worked well for us."
Other cities and towns adjust their meeting policies to fit their communities. In some cases, council may require residents to first try to resolve their concern with city staff. Sometimes those concerns do not fall under local government purview but are more appropriately brought to a different level of government or agency.
Another way some municipalities keep proceedings orderly and prevent surprises at meetings is by requiring residents who wish to address council to submit a summary of their comments to city staff before the meeting. The mayor and city council members would then receive a memo that includes the residents' names and their concerns before those individuals speak.
Regardless of the process a city chooses to follow, it should be outlined in the council's rules of procedure.