Don’t include detailed public comment in meeting minutes

By Ann Macfarlane, Professional Registered Parliamentarian, Jurassic Parliament

When city councils, school boards or other public bodies hold their meetings, it is usual to reserve a time in the meeting for members of the public to speak to their elected officials. One common name for this is the public comment period. We recommend that detailed public comment should not be included in the body’s minutes. For background, read our suggestions about how to conduct the public comment period here.

What is the purpose of meeting minutes?

According to Robert’s Rules of Order, and the common understanding of parliamentary procedure, minutes are a record of the decisions made by the body. They are supposed to include “what is done,” and not “what is said.” Personal comments and observations made by elected officials should never be included in the minutes.

What is the purpose of the public comment period?

The purpose of the public comment period is for members of the public to inform the body of their views. This is an important function and it is critical for the elected officials to listen with care to the public, and to consider what they hear in their deliberations. Just as with the elected officials themselves, however, there is no need to make a permanent written record of the public’s observations.

Public hearings are different from the public comment period

Note that public hearings, formal structured events required by law for certain kinds of local government decisions, are different from the public comment period. It is characteristically a requirement that testimony provided at a public hearing should be recorded. This article is not about public hearings.

How should you record public comment?

Here are some different ways to record public comment:

A. Public comment was given.

B. Public comment was given by Resident Smith and Resident Valdez.

C. Public comment was given. Residents expressed their appreciation for the work done by the board, expressed concern about the headquarters building, and asked the board to consider employee welfare in the current negotiations.

D. Public comment was given as follows:

  • Resident Green said the board was doing a great job.
  • Resident Khan expressed concern about the cost of the new building.
  • Resident Robinson asked the board to consider employee welfare in the current negotiations.

Don’t record detailed public comment like this

E. Resident Jones said that she was very concerned about her latest water bill. She only uses water for basic functions of cooking and cleaning, and a person ought to be able to do that without paying $40/month. She didn’t understand why the board had decided to raise the rates when the district was clearly doing very well financially. After all, commissioners had found the money to attend the state-wide conference last month, and what was the point of all that gallivanting about anyway? Surely in these days of online learning, people can get what they need for training over the Internet…and so on.

Avoid these pitfalls of recording detailed public comment

Recently we’ve seen instances where detailed public comment in the minutes led to problems. During public comment, a resident objected to the way his comments at the previous meeting had been recorded. The body postponed approval of the minutes in order to redraft the comments to the resident’s satisfaction. This was a waste of public time and money.

In another instance, the secretary was asked to include a notation in the minutes correcting a statement, made by a resident during the public comment period, which was considered to be erroneous. This violates the purpose of minutes, which is to create a record of the meeting itself.

In yet another instance, the resident himself recognized that his remarks sounded foolish in the detailed record, and agreed that a change in practice was desirable.

More information

GUIDELINES Public Comment in Local Government

Don’t get into back-and-forth exchanges during public comment

Citizen’s Guide to Effective Public Meetings

The bottom line on detailed public comment in the meeting minutes

If your jurisdiction makes an audio or video recording of your meetings, public comment will be available for posterity. If it does not, in our view there is still no need to make or keep a detailed written record. The purpose of the comments is to inform the elected officials. That purpose is accomplished at the meeting itself.

We welcome your comments and questions! Email Ann

# # #

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.