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Manage Public Comment Periods Cautiously

Public comment sessions during city council meetings can be a valuable way for residents to engage with their local government and elected leaders, but they can easily become a source of conflict. 

Speakers might continue their comments for excessive amounts of time, or even intentionally disrupt the council’s business. Sometimes, councilmembers might respond angrily, or handle different public comment participants inconsistently. 

Councils who establish public comment sessions need to plan and conduct them carefully. Established rules of procedure can limit the time allowed, the conduct or the number of speakers. 

Here are some key things to remember about public comment periods:

There is no requirement to have public comment sessions.

Public comment — a time set aside to hear from the public on any number of issues — is not the same thing as the public hearings required by state law. SC Code Section 6-1-80 requires a public hearing before the council adopts an annual budget, while SC Code Section 6-1-330 requires a public hearing before adopting a new service or user fee. State law does not require public comment periods.

Manage the public comment sessions carefully, lay out the expectations for a commenter’s conduct and how the session will proceed at the beginning.

Rules can focus on many points: 

  • When in the meeting the public may speak — often at the beginning or end of the meeting. 
  • Whether speakers must sign up in advance of the meeting.
  • How long a person may speak. A 2023 SC Attorney General’s opinion addressed a case where public comment rules allowed only three minutes per speaker, and noted that “[t]his Office cannot definitively state when the amount of time permitted is so short a court would find it unreasonable.”
  • Whether speakers may comment upon only matters on the agenda or any topic. The 2023 attorney general opinion found that a “relevancy requirement” would be legal, which could require that speakers confine comments to matters that are within the scope of the municipality’s business. 

The council can also communicate, on the agenda and verbally, to participants that the rules exist to ensure that councilmembers have adequate time to discuss critical issues, and to preserve order in the meeting. It can be useful to note that the comment period is the only portion of the meeting when the council will receive comments from attendees during the meeting. 

Councils that set time limits will often display a timer so that the individual speakers know when they must conclude their remarks. 

Be prepared for the possibility of public comments at a meeting sending it into disorder. 

Sometimes, rules and preparations are not enough to maintain order — for example, a large group of people attending a meeting to express anger over a specific issue. Some councils have rules or ordinances authorizing the presiding officer to stop public comments that either the chair or a majority of council determine to be uncivil, contentious or disruptive. 

Although it is legal to remove a person who violates rules from a public meeting, councils should exercise caution when doing this, and be mindful to avoid infringing on First Amendment rights in the process.

Learn more about conducting meetings in the How to Conduct Effective Meetings handbook online.