Public comment sessions during city council meetings can be a valuable way for residents to engage with their local government and elected leaders, but times set aside for public comment can also easily become a source of conflict. There are a number of best practices for how councils can run public comment periods, and the SC Attorney General has issued opinions on the matter as well.
City and town councils should have formal rules in place for public comment periods, and ensure that speakers know the rules. Rules can cover everything from when during the meeting members of the public can speak, whether speakers can comment only on agenda items or on any topic of their choosing, whether speakers must sign up in advance of the meeting, and whether time limits exist for each speaker.
Sometimes, rules and preparations are not enough to maintain order in a charged situation — for example, a large number of people attending a meeting to express anger over a specific issue. To prevent public comment sessions from derailing or overly extending meetings, some municipalities have adopted rules authorizing the presiding officer to stop public comments that either the chair or a majority of council determine to be uncivil, contentious or disruptive.
In a difficult situation, managing the meeting can mean giving warnings that if speakers do not follow the rules, the council will end public comment.
Recent Attorney General opinions
A 2019 opinion issued by the SC Attorney General recognized that the SC Freedom of Information Act does not establish a right for the public to speak during public meetings, and that the public body’s own policies will often determine when and how speakers may participate.
One item to consider here is that a public comment period is not the same thing as a public hearing, which is required in some circumstances by state law. SC Code Section 6-1-80, for example, 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. Public comment periods, on the other hand, are optional for councils, not mandatory.
Most recently, the Attorney General released an opinion on public comments on June 5, which examined several aspects of the public comment rules that public bodies may use. The opinion considered several issues:
- A “relevancy requirement” is legal. For example, a council could require that speakers during a public comment period confine their comments to matters that are within the scope of the municipality’s business.
- Reasonable time limits for speakers are legal. The opinion examined public comment rules that allowed three minutes per speaker, but noted that “[t]his Office cannot definitively state when the amount of time permitted is so short a court would find it unreasonable.”
- Rules prohibiting speakers from yielding or ceding their available speaking time are legal. The opinion noted that the Attorney General’s Office was unaware of a court case on this issue, but it found a rule against “stacking” time for a single speaker acceptable because it was “content neutral and appears reasonably related to maintaining the order and fair progress of a meeting.”
It is legal to remove a person who violates rules from a public meeting, but councils should exercise caution when doing this. Councils, for example, need to do everything they can to avoid infringing on First Amendment rights when doing this.
Learn more about conducting meetings in the Municipal Association’s How to Conduct Effective Meetings handbook.