How to make a public comment at a Council meeting

(In case any of you are interested; if not, perhaps you’d be interested to know that the only time I ever run into Kevin Ksen is when he’s taking photos of various community groups before Council meetings.  It still boggles my mind that he knows who I am.)

Previously, my public commenting has consisted of a wave when I got voted on for Hope Cemetery Commission, and frequent winks to Mike Germain.

So, speaking before the Council was a really big deal for me.  Here’s how to go about preparing for it:

1) Let the Mayor know you’re going to speak.
In this case, I emailed his staff people, and came extra early to the meeting to give them a heads up that I wanted to speak.  JOB let me know that he’d try to get me in as early as possible, because he knows I have kids whom I need to get home to.

2) If you’re going to prepare handouts…
I emailed handouts to the Council the evening before, but I also brought handouts for every Councilor and the Mayor (11 people), plus the City Manager (or, as was the case tonight, the City Solicitor), plus the City Clerk.  So, plan on thirteen handouts plus whatever you’re going to have in front of you.  You can place the handouts on each person’s desk before the meeting.

3) Dress for success.
This is more for the ladies.  Tracy knows I’m a firm believer in pantsuits (in this case, a tweed Harvé Benard I picked up at Goodwill) and scarves (Echo oblong scarf that was brown/tan with magenta paisley).  I do not have enough edge to pull off the Melican-on-Rosen’s-Roundtable look.  (Though, as Jeremy knows, I was wearing my shoes with the holes in them, which I normally try not to wear when it’s raining.  Wear sensible shoes, regardless of gender, preferably without holes!) 

4) Try not to just read a speech.
Towards the beginning of my comments, I had to read off a list because I didn’t want to forget anything.  I think the Councilors tend to prefer if you sound like you’re speaking off the cuff (because then you’re looking at them, not at your notes).  I kind of knew some of the ideas I wanted to get across, so the danger of off-the-cuff is that it flies by and you end up saying “Thank you” and hoping you didn’t sound like a complete idiot.

5) Focus on someone.
I have to confess that I was trying my best not to look at certain councilors (because I can’t look at MikeGermain without grinning like a fool).  You know how they always tell you to focus on one person when you speak to a group?  You should do that.  The Mayor is pretty easy, because he usually tries to look engaged.  This time, though, I kept looking at David Moore because he always looks like he’s trying to get to his happy place during Council meetings.  (And he usually looks like he’s succeeded.)

Anyway, I hope I got some of what I wanted to say across in my comment.  Phil Palmieri wearing a turtleneck instead of a tie kind of threw off my game.

Next time I’m just going to have Germain wink at me at the right points in my speech.

Other stuff you can’t get anywhere else:

  • Jo Hart agrees with me regarding Joff Smith’s height.  There was another lady there who also agreed with us.  I should have asked Kevin his take on Joff’s height.
  • Question from Jo: there’d been some discussion about the city’s membership in the MMA/State House News but wanted to see if anyone was aware of whether there’d been any movement on getting regular citizens access.  Does anyone out there know?
  • I am too shy to introduce myself to Lee Hammel, but not too shy to tell MikeGermain he’s still my favorite, as long as he keeps voting the way I want.
  • I may appear on Coffee with Konnie some time in the future.  My husband says, “It’s because one pantsuit recognized another.  There’s no way she would have asked if you weren’t wearing a pantsuit.”

11 thoughts on “How to make a public comment at a Council meeting

  1. Kate Toomey says:

    Nicole, great commentary about speaking before council. You did a great job. I also appreciated your handout. Not having it with me, (it’s in my car) did you see this recent article?

    http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2010/10/01/it%E2%80%99s-time-for-a-new-version-of-government/

    btw, I bet you could come up with a few more bingo ideas…you are a very creative person! It was a short meeting tonight, so I couldn’t get bingo, but I was close!

    • Nicole says:

      Regarding Bingo, that was NOT all written by me; it was really a group project, but I don’t know that all the group members would want to acknowledge their contributions.

      I have not read that article, but it was written by John Moore, who has been talking with frequent commenter Ken about holding a Gov2.0 unconference like CityCamp. (Which was mentioned very briefly last night, but for which there’s more information in the handout.) I hope that’s something the administration might consider pursuing.

  2. Joe says:

    While I appreciate Councilor Toomey being able to have a sense of humor about the Council proceedings, and realize that all the councilors are “Real People” (to some extent or other)…

    I find it… disturbing (I don’t know if that’s the right word to describe what I feel about it. annoying? disappointing?) that the Councilor spends her time during the Council meetings playing games and interacting with the “Peanut Gallery” (WoMag’s live chat).

    Aside for subcommittee meetings, there are 2-4 hours every week that the council members are required to be there- doing their *job* that the people *elected* them to do, and that they are being *paid* to do.

    I realize these meetings can be boring, and much of what is decided is discussed in advance, and some of the councilors are pompous windbags- but this is your job! If you don’t want to do it, don’t run!

    It’s bad enough that we see some people checking email (surfing the web?) on their blackberrys during the meeting, or moving off to chat about who-knows what during the meeting. The least they could do is feign interest for a couple hours, if not out of respect for the people who are at the meeting and each other, then out of a sense of respect for the people who elected them.

    There’s plenty of time to talk to your online constituents the other 164 hours of the week.

    But to commit to a public record that anyone can see out on the web that you aren’t paying attention to the proceedings…

    It irks me. Maybe that’s the best word. I can’t be the only one.

  3. Tracy says:

    Addressing the chair is a good idea, anyway, Nicole, because technically that’s what you’re doing. We’ve had chairs in the past who were bothered by people addressing others in the chamber. It tends to be more of an issue of the other members, though.
    And barely anyone can pull off the Melican-on-Rosen’s-Roundtable look.

    Joe, having done it myself, I will say that some (but, yes, only some) of those side conversations are actually city business, either about an upcoming item or one that just passed. (And yes, some are undoubtedly catching up on the score!)

  4. Kate Toomey says:

    Joe, I can assure you I wasn’t actualy “playing a game”. I referenced it as a joke…inside, yes, but I don’t play games. As for the peanut gallery I have commented on a rare occasion to clarify or answer a question.
    I take my role as councilor very seriously and always try to be respectful. I use my netbook or blackberry to look up information.

    I will make sure not to make jokes that could be misinterpreted. I am very grateful to have been given the public trust, and take all of this seriously.

    • Joe says:

      Councilor Toomey,
      The fact that you are taking time to read what the peanut gallery is saying means that you are not focusing on what’s going on in the council chamber. The fact that you take the time to comment confirms it.

      Read over the comments you made in this chat:
      http://www.coveritlive.com/index.php?option=com_altcaster&task=siteviewaltcast&altcast_code=dc5f556bdd

      The comment “Palmieri is not a fan of mine ANYWAY, and I don’t think he has voted for ANYTHING I have worked hard on.” does not seem to be a clarification. As far a questions from the Peanut Gallery go, what does it matter if they are answered during the meeting? Most of these people are not actually participating in the meeting- they are not addressing the council. (I realize that occasionally some do) It’s just another side chat. I understand that no one can sit through a 4-hour meeting and not have their attention drift at some point, and that occasionally you need to discuss a development or comment privately with another councilor. But it should be the exception.

      Most of these comments apply to the whole council, not only to you. Unfortunately, you are the only one who has chosen to commit your side business to format that anyone can see.

  5. Nicole says:

    Also — a few other things I should have mentioned:
    1) Councilor Rushton mentioned one of his pet ideas (311) — for those of you who are interested in this, there’s a great Open311 program that’s going on in San Francisco; if he (or another councilor) is interested in pursuing it, I think that’s as good a place as any to start.

    2) Something I’d mentioned before, both in this blog and in the email to the councilors, but not directly on my .pdf handout, is to read Wiki Government by Beth Noveck. Quick read, and it illustrates what Gov 2.0 can do better than I can.

    3) Did I mention how scary it is to do this? I find public speaking incredibly stressful, and I don’t think most members of the public get the warm-and-fuzzies when they speak before the Council. (Especially from a certain turtlenecked corner.) Sometimes you can’t help but feel (though this wasn’t necessarily the case with me) that the speaker is just secondary to the various internecine feuds in the Council — that once the speaker finishes, we’ll just go back to various tit-for-tat arguments.

    4) From a conversation I had with someone outside of the blog about Councilor Lukes: Her distaste for involving bloggers (or for having a “blog” on the city website) shows me that she really doesn’t understand who we are, or what (positive action) we’re capable of. If she’s not really interested in having our input (on a topic in which we have more knowledge and skills than she) at this juncture, is she going to be interested in what we have to say when the city has a crowdsourcing tool?

    Because I sure as heck do not want to be involved in anything that does not increase democratic participation and improve this city for the better. Commit to THAT, and look at technology as a tool to THAT end.

  6. Kate Toomey says:

    Joe, thanks for your insight. I won’t comment with tbe bloggers during a meeting again.

  7. Hi Nicole,

    Last night I was so easily distracted with all the little nuances that I only covered one spot on City Council Bingo; when the mayor tried to find a compromise. I only caught the tail end of one of Councilor Rushton’s metaphors, might have been able to cover another spot there – not sure.

    The meetings are definitely more interesting when the manager and city clerk are there too. I’m going to miss the cool rasp in the manager’s voice. I also missed seeing my friend from Belmont Street. He’s the guy with the salt and pepper hair that’s always commenting about the meeting under his breath. I guess the rain kept him away this week.

    It’s funny you mentioned that look that David Moore always gets at council meetings… Sometimes I wish I could read his thoughts; I bet they’d be a riot. And I’m always awed by David Rushford’s unflinching focus on the matters at hand. I know he’s actually kind and sensitive to other people’s emotions, but during council meetings, his demeanor reminds me of the guards outside Buckingham Palace. That’s probably why he makes the big bucks. Also, I thought Palmieri’s 70’s look fits him perfectly – maybe one of these days, he’ll wear a plaid leisure suit for us. He missed his calling as a stage actor. Councilor Petty, by contrast, is just too damn normal. As for Councilor Germaine, it looked like he was waiting for the wink from you at the end of your presentation. I sensed the frustration when it was not forthcoming.

    Anyway, hopefully I’ll get full-time work soon, so I can afford to get cable and my own internet service. Right now, for me it’s almost like Gilligan’s Island: “No phone, no lights, no motor car / not a single lux-ur-ee…” Well, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it’s still pretty pathetic that attending a Tuesday night city council meeting is the most fun thing I do all week.

    Thanks again for the information about Manor Labs and all the other think tanks.

    -Christina

    • Tracy says:

      Nope, Christina, he was up at the Durkin Administration Building, at the School Committee subcommittee meeting! Really. He had some good things to say, too.

  8. Kate Toomey says:

    Nicole, I am VERY interested in your input. You have added a great deal of information and insight into discussions, and you did a GREAT job…I would never have known you were at all not comfortable speaking.

    Perhaps we (you and others who are interested in this) could all meet after work some night next week (not Tuesday!) and brainstorm.

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