County Board Reduces Public Comment Time

At its Jan. 4, 2012 meeting, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners modified its rules related to public commentary, shortening the time available per speaking turn and eliminating one of two agenda slots for public commentary. [.pdf of revised board rules & regulations]

The board’s rules and regulations, adopted at the beginning of each year, were modified in three ways. Most significantly, the second of two opportunities for public commentary was eliminated at both the board meeting and the ways & means committee meeting. The times slated for commissioner response to public commentary at the end of those two meetings was also eliminated. Previously, public commentary and commissioner response were provided near the start and end of each board meeting and each ways & means committee meeting. Now there will be only one opportunity for public commentary at the start of each meeting, followed by commissioner response.

In addition, the five minutes alloted per speaker during general public commentary at the board meeting has been reduced to three minutes each. The time alloted for commentary at public hearings (held on a specific topic) has also been cut from five to three minutes per speaker. Three minutes is already the current time alloted for public commentary at the board’s ways & means committee, where the bulk of the board’s business is conducted.

The original rules-change proposal called for eliminating the second public commentary at the board’s working sessions as well. Yousef Rabhi, who was re-elected chair of the working session at the Jan. 4 meeting, proposed an amendment to keep both public commentary slots in place at the working sessions. His amendment also kept the five minutes alloted per speaker for public commentary at the working sessions. Rabhi’s amendment was approved unanimously.

The third change in the board’s rules & regulations relates to the eligibility of county employees for claiming per diem and mileage. Under previous rules adopted in 2011, no county employee could claim a per diem or mileage reimbursement for service on a county board, committee or commission. The current rules adopted on Jan. 4, 2012 now apply that rule only to regular, benefitted county employees. This allows part-time county employees who receive no county benefits to receive a per diem and mileage payment. The rule does not apply to county commissioners – their per diem and mileage are handled under separate flex accounts, which were not changed.

There was only one vote taken on the overall changes to the board’s rules & regulations. It passed on a 10-1 vote, with dissent from Rolland Sizemore Jr. However, Felicia Brabec and Ronnie Peterson wanted the record to reflect that they were voting against eliminating public commentary. Peterson also voted against reducing the time allotment to three minutes.

This brief was filed from the boardroom of the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. A more detailed report will follow: [link]


  1. By Jim Carty
    January 4, 2012 at 10:17 pm | permalink

    Hard to see less opportunities for public comment as a good thing.

  2. By Alan Goldsmith
    January 5, 2012 at 6:38 am | permalink

    Re: # 1. Unless you are a local politician who owes the County money for expenses and refuses to pay them back. Less opportunities for the public to speak would no doubt be a good thing. Has Conan Smith, supporter of Financial Managers appointed by the State, another anti-democracy slap in the face to the voters, paid his debt yet? I don’t recall reading any media reports that he has.

  3. January 5, 2012 at 7:35 am | permalink

    I’m grateful to Yousef Rabhi for retaining the additional public comment at working sessions. Yousef is proving to be a very citizen-oriented commissioner and this is reassuring.

    When I was on the BOC, I was proud of us for the open policy that allowed as many commenters at public comment as wished. (Unlike City Council, who placed limits on the number of speakers some time ago.) This was rarely used to extend our meetings noticeably except for a couple of very high-controversy events. Most comments were pertinent and related to immediate agenda items, while some of the public used the opportunity to alert us to certain issues. Roger Rayle, for example, gave some very good early alerts to the Pall-Gelman situation that were valuable and informative.

    Sadly, I suspect that this limitation is a direct effect of Thomas Partridge’s abuse of the public comment privilege. I heartily embrace the right of the people to engage government but his use of the podium at every opportunity is self-indulgent and pointless.

  4. By Blaine Coleman
    January 5, 2012 at 8:43 am | permalink

    You can see a trend by city, county, and university governing bodies to cut back on free speech.

    Yes, even at the Michigan Student Assembly: [link]

    Obviously, these legislators do not limit speech because the public is sick of speaking. They do it simply because they can. There is not enough public outcry to stop them from gagging you.

    If you enforce public silence, you can mistake it for acquiescence.

  5. January 5, 2012 at 7:23 pm | permalink

    I don’t think there is a big problem in reducing the time for public comment. The Ann Arbor City Council set a three-minute time limit a while ago. So what?

  6. By Blaine Coleman
    January 5, 2012 at 7:49 pm | permalink

    David is right: the City Council did reduce public comments down to 3 minutes each. It was in 2004.

    At that time, the City Council was considering the elimination of virtually all public commentary unless it was on “agenda items”: [link]

    This was criticized in the local media as anti-democratic.

    Fortunately, at the urging of the ACLU, Council relented and merely slashed speakers’ time to 3 minutes. The Council also pushed all “agenda item” speakers to the head of the line, for the first time.