A citizens’ guide to public comments at local government meetings

(Cullman Tribune file photo)

A county commissioner appeared shocked at a meeting this summer when the county ordinance stipulating guidelines for the public comments portion of commission meetings was cited, despite his eight years in office participating in the meetings. 

Cullman City Council meetings have been contentious at times this year, too, with hotly debated measures being heard, including the rezoning near Carroll Acres on the city’s southeast side and the upcoming Cullman Comes Out event. 

These examples saw meetings where the public comments portions of the agendas were packed full of impassioned citizens voicing concerns about developers clearing acres of trees, challenging a high-density complex being built in the middle of a residential area, discussing heavy traffic, expressing displeasure with county officials, homosexuality and more. Some spoke calmly within their time limits. Others roared while disregarding the established parameters. Some county residents spoke at Cullman City Council meetings stating they would vote out members of the council despite the city council not being on their ballots. 

These incidents provided the opportunity to explore the Cullman County Commission’s Rules of Procedure, which were voted on in 2005 and are available upon records request at the Cullman County Courthouse, and the City of Cullman’s ordinances, which are available online. 

What exactly are the rules for these portions of meetings in which residents are afforded the opportunity to have their voices heard? 

The county commission’s rules state that a public comment from a citizen during a commission meeting “shall be limited to 3-minutes per speaker and no more than two speakers may be heard on the same subject.” 

However, it’s not that simple, as the commission reserves the right to extend the time limit or to allow more than two citizens to speak on the same topic with proper protocol. The commission chairman may allow for comments lasting longer than three minutes. More than two speakers are allowed on the same subject with a commission vote. The rules state: “The remarks of each speaker shall be limited to no more than three minutes, unless the Chair extends the time, and no more than two speakers may be heard on each subject unless authorized by affirmative vote of all members of the commission who are present.” 

The comments made are not to be personal in nature toward the commission nor any commission employee. Additionally, common courtesy is highly recommended. “The comment shall conform to the requirements of decorum and order that apply to the members of the commission and the Chair shall take whatever steps are necessary (including the removal of any citizen or other elected official) to preserve such decorum and order.” 

The City of Cullman’s standards are much the same as the County’s rules on public comments. The Cullman City Council’s ordinance reads: “Citizens and other elected officials who wish to be heard by the council shall be afforded such opportunity during the portion of the meeting so designated.” 

The City requires the same appropriate “decorum and order,” and if the public commenter or council member gets “out of hand,” the council president has the authority to have either removed so as to restore peace. 

Comments are not allowed to be personal in nature about the council members and no debate nor action by the council is permitted during the public comment portion of the meeting. 

As for scheduled public hearings by the City, the ordinance states: “The city council may conduct any public hearings during this portion of the council meeting. Any notice required by law prior to the conduct of the public hearing shall be given by the city council.” 

Speakers are each asked to stay within the three-minute time limit and the council or president has the option to vote to either extend or reduce the time limit according to the number of speakers. The same code of conduct, per se, is expected regarding “decorum and order,” and the same provisions are available to the council and president so as to maintain order.  

Additionally, community leaders are not required to allow speakers who live outside of their jurisdictions a turn at the podium, just as citizens cannot vote outside of their jurisdictions. 

Both City and County officials say they welcome the public’s input and recognize their responsibility to the community.  

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