The Anoka County Board decided this week not to create a public comment period during board meetings, deviating from standard practice for most county boards across the metro area.
The proposal, offered as an amendment to the board's procedures by Commissioner Mandy Meisner, was to allow up to 10 minutes for public comment with two minutes allocated per speaker.
It was rejected on a 4-2 vote, though County Board Chairman Scott Schulte and other commissioners agreed to discuss the issue once a vacant seat on the board is filled next month.
"A lot of us here have served on city councils. … So we all have some experience in having those open discussions at these types of meetings," said Commissioner Mike Gamache, who supported the measure along with Meisner. "I don't recall it ever being part of county meetings."
Commissioner Robyn West said that when she joined the board in 2007 she "thought it was kind of odd that we didn't have an open forum." But she said commissioners are available via phone and e-mail.
Meisner said the only time residents may publicly address the Anoka County Board is during committee meetings. But she said those meetings aren't on the public record and don't require full attendance of the board.
"We work for the public; the public should have a voice," Meisner said in an interview. "It can be managed on our end so it's not a free-for-all situation."
State open meeting laws give the public the right to attend meetings, but that doesn't mean they also have the right to speak there. City councils, county boards and school boards may decide for themselves whether to allow the public a chance to comment, and set the parameters in terms of allotted time to speak and number of speakers.
Erik Thorson, a spokesman for Anoka County, said a public comment period hasn't been part of board meetings for at least 40 years. Ramsey County also doesn't offer a time for public comment; spokesman John Siqveland said there's no demand for such public participation. E-mails or other forms of communication are more common, he said.
"If a person wants to share their thoughts with our board, they do not need to journey to downtown St. Paul on a Tuesday," Siqveland said in an e-mail.
However, officials for state organizations representing cities and school districts said they're not aware of any city council or school board that doesn't allow the public to address elected leaders.
Such boards commonly set aside time at the beginning of each meeting for a public forum or hearing, sometimes referred to as a listening session. Some may require citizens to fill out a form or schedule with officials ahead of time.
"It's a courtesy the board offers," said Greg Abbott, spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association. "Because like any public entity, you want to hear from your public."
The League of Minnesota Cities has developed a list of best practices for public meetings but doesn't have specific rules on how councils should handle public comment. Aisia Davis, research attorney with the League, said she's not aware of any cities that "formally disallow it." But she said the public doesn't have the active right to participate in meetings unless recognized by the council's presiding officer.
Jennifer Wolf, senior staff counsel for the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust (MCIT), said the organization doesn't make a recommendation to members on whether to have a public comment period. If they do, she said, "MCIT recommends having rules that comply with the First Amendment and other regulations."
Schulte said the Anoka County Board needs to first understand "both the positives and the negatives of what an open forum can bring to a public discussion" before offering time for public comment.
For instance, comment during public hearings before the Minneapolis City Council in recent years has sometimes consumed and even derailed meetings. Council members struggled to maintain order, so much so that they called recesses during meetings with high emotion and turnout.
Abbott said almost every school board in the state has some sort of open forum, with varying limitations determined by the board. "Ninety-five percent of the time, nobody's abusing it," he said.