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Friday, October 3, 2014

Registration Rule for Public Comment Violated OMA

In its 12th opinion of 2014, the PAC found a county board in violation of the OMA for refusing to allow a person to speak during public comment because he did not register 5 days in advance of the meeting as required by the county board's rules.  PAC Op. 14-012 (Sept. 30, 2014).

The McLean County Board had established various rules for public comment at county board meetings, including a rule requiring members of the public and county employees to sign up at least 5 days in advance of a board meeting if they want to speak at the meeting.  The complainant was denied the right to speak for failing to comply with the rules (he signed up 4 days in advance) and filed a request for review with the PAC.  

The PAC analyzed the complaint under Section 2.06(g) of the OMA that provides an opportunity for members of the public to address public officials.  Again, the PAC interpreted that rule to require a public comment period at all open meetings, although the OMA does not expressly provide for that right.  Although the PAC acknowledged that the OMA allows a public body to adopt rules governing public comment such as those adopted by the county board, it found that the advance registration rule to be unreasonable because it "does not take into account the fact that the public has a statutory right to address the Board."  The PAC determined that the advance sign-up requirement "imposed substantial obstacles for those who wish to speak at the Board's meetings," particularly because the OMA does not require a public body to post agendas until 48 hours before a meeting.  

The county board's refusal to allow the individual to speak at the meeting even though he filed a request 4 days in advance of the meeting probably played into the PAC's opinion.  However, the board rules did contain a separate provision authorizing a board member to request that a person be allowed to speak at the meeting - in essence, a waiver of the advance registration rule.  The PAC did not issue any ruling on that rule, however, and instead struck down the 5 day registration rule as unreasonable.  

We have written a lot about the public comment issue lately, summarizing the PAC's advisory opinions here and reporting on the two binding opinions (the other one involving addresses). The problem is that the OMA provides no guidance, so the PAC opinions are all public bodies have to assist them in drafting rules for public comment at meetings - which the PAC says is required for all public bodies.  Based on the two binding opinions, we know the PAC would find rules requiring an individual to provide his or her address or register five days in advance to be unreasonable public comment rules.  We know that the PAC believes that section 2.06(g) requires public comment at all open meetings of all public bodies.  We know that the PAC interprets that section to require that all public bodies adopt rules for public comment.  We also know that the PAC is ok with reasonable time limits (although we don't have much guidance on what that means) and that public bodies can enforce rules of decorum for disruptive public comment.  Beyond that, we may need to wait for more guidance from the PAC - or, legislative clarity.  

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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