Q: I went to a meeting of my Village Board of Trustees and wanted to speak on a particular item, but they wouldn’t let me. Don’t I have a right to speak at a public meeting?
The right of the public to speak at meetings of government boards is often misinterpreted. Procedures at such meetings are governed by a variety of statutes, the principal one being the Open Meetings Law. This law applies to all local government bodies which have authority to make decisions on matters before them. It does not apply to strictly advisory bodies.
The Open Meetings Law requires public bodies to conduct their business in public, which means that meetings of such bodies must be held in facilities which reasonably accommodate spectators, and that the discussions by members of those bodies be held in such a way as to permit the public to see and hear what is happening. The Open Meetings Law also permits such bodies to meet in private executive session to discuss limited sensitive subjects, provided that they first adopt a resolution stating why they are going into executive session. At the end of any executive session, the body must return to public session, at which point it may either conduct further public business or adjourn.
Public meetings may consist of business meetings and public hearings. In the case of the business portion of the meeting, members of the public do not have a right to speak on any item, or at any time, unless they are recognized by the presiding officer to do so. Most boards have rules which establish whether and when public comment is permitted, whether at the time the body considers particular items or at one or more designated public comment periods. However, boards are not required to have public comment periods, and some boards do not permit public input at their meetings at all. It is important to realize that boards are not required to permit public input at the business portions of their meetings.
Public hearings are another matter, because the purpose of a public hearing is to hear the public. If a public hearing is being held, the board must listen to any interested person who wishes to make comments germane to the subject of the public hearing. The body can impose reasonable limits on speaking time, or repetitive speaking, but must give a fair opportunity for public input.
I hope this helps understand why you may not have been allowed to speak, or were limited in the amount of input you could give. Keep in mind that you always have the opportunity to make a written submission to a public body about anything you want to say.
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