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Can We Change the Way We Hold Public Meetings? How One City Made Public Meetings More Participatory

Can We Change the Way We Hold Public Meetings? How One City Made Public Meetings More Participatory | Newtown News of Interest | Scoop.it

[image: Portsmouth Listens has helped the city transform its public meetings. Above, a Portsmouth Listens facilitator leads a study circle.]

 

Picture this: You're at a public meeting. Members of the public share concerns at the microphone, with a timer buzzing if they talk too long. The council sits quietly and does not respond to the public's comments, and then proceeds with the agenda once the public comment period is over. Something about the process just feels wrong, but you can't deviate from the rules of the meeting. Or can you? Some communities across the country are changing the law to allow for more participatory public meetings. And you can too*.


The shift from in-person to online meetings during the pandemic is an example of how we actually can change the way we hold public meetings. Some communities are even electing to keep online components intact after the pandemic ends in order to allow for easier participation (read, for example, “Doylestown: Incorporating Zoom Into Live BOS Meetings").

 

As we think about changing public meetings, this seems like the moment to take stock of how we structure our meetings in general. Is the way that we have historically held public meetings the best way? Are we truly engaging the public? 

Communities across the United States are starting to experiment with more modern styles of public meetings that are participatory and collaborative. For instance, the city of Austin, Texas, has an entire Public Participation wing of its government. In Chicago and Boston, cities have experimented with the public's participation in deciding budget priorities. In 2017, Portsmouth, N.H., voted to change its city council rules to allow more public dialogue in public meetings.

Portsmouth historically used a traditional city meeting format of Robert's Rules of Order and public comment. But then the city voted to change its meetings to include community dialogue sessions that replaced public comment. The rationale for changing the meeting structure was to promote more engagement between the council and the public. 

In Portsmouth's community dialogue sessions, the nine city councilors break into small groups with constituents and lightly facilitate a conversation where community members can bring up any topics on their mind. 

In an era where many communities are distrusting or dissatisfied with their local government, flipping the script on how we engage the public may be the answer.

 

johnmacknewtown's insight:

About the Authors of this piece:  Moore-Vissing is associate director for national engagement at Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to creating a stronger, more inclusive, more participatory democracy for everyone. Orellana is Public Agenda's public engagement project coordinator.

 

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