Commissioners pass new public comment policy

Commissioners have passed a new public comment policy aimed at enhancing community engagement and participation.

Nicole DeCriscio


Nicole DeCriscio


Jun 30, 2024

Commissioners pass new public comment policy

The Owen County Board of Commissioners approved an updated public comment policy during their April 17 meeting. 

The conversation started with County Attorney Dana Kerr reading the draft policy out loud. 

“The handbook on Indiana’s Public Access Laws from the Office of the Public Access Counselor states that Indiana’s Open Door Law ‘does not guarantee the right to speak at public meetings. Although an individual has the right to attend and observe all public proceedings, no specific statutory authority allows an individual to appear before and address a governing body. A governing body may choose to provide an opportunity for comments or discussion at any time or may allow a limited number of comments or limited amount of time for comments on matters under consideration. During certain meetings, a provision for public comment may be required by statute or local ordinance,’” Kerr read directly from the policy. 

The policy reiterates a previous policy that limits public comment to the second commissioners meeting of the month. Currently, those meetings are typically held on the third Wednesday of the month at 9 a.m. in the Commissioners Room of the Owen County Courthouse. 

Kerr then read the list of guidelines for public comment:

  • Public comments shall be limited to three minutes for each person;
  • The public comments portion of the meeting is limited to 15 minutes;
  • Public comments are limited to only residents of Owen County (When Kerr read the policy out loud, he added taxpayers of Owen County. This addition is not represented in the policy posted outside of the Commissioners Room on the second floor of the courthouse.);
  • The speaker must provide their name;
  • Public comments are only allowed on matters under consideration at the meeting; 
  • Public comments are allowed so that residents of Owen County can provide information on the matters under consideration. This is not a time for questions and answers or discussion. Those can be done with each commissioner outside of their public meetings. The commissioners’ telephone numbers and email addresses are on the county website for that purpose;
  • Further, public comments are not to be attacking any individual, are not to be political or election based, and may not be in regards to matters such as personnel or matters held in an executive meeting;
  • The presiding officer will take reasonable steps to maintain order in a meeting, including the removal of any person who is willfully disruptive of the meeting; and
  • The presiding officer may interrupt, warn or terminate a person's statement when the statement is too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, obscene or irrelevant.

Board President Gary Burton said that creating the policy was discussed about a month prior and it was ready for their consideration. 

Commissioner Bob Curry moved to approve the policy, and commissioner Joel Lowe seconded the motion. The motion passed unanimously with no discussion prior. 

After the motion passed, Burton said, “There’s some counties that don’t allow any [public comment] at all.”

He added that some do a suggestion box model. 

“We still feel it’s important that the public speak at at least one of our meetings. As you see, by state law it doesn't have to happen, but we provide that opportunity,” Burton said. 

Later in the meeting, Curry said that they would “make an adjustment [to include] the local newspaper.” He said that they would add that to the policy; however, no formal vote or action was taken on the matter. The other two commissioners verbally confirmed a desire to update the policy with that inclusion. 

Burton then added that the point of adding property owners was brought up because a property owner might not necessarily reside on the property that they own. No formal action was taken to amend the policy for this inclusion either. 

The policy as written, if enforced, could also preclude community stakeholders that reside outside of the county and do not own property from speaking at the meeting. This would include a business owner that rents their storefront and resides outside of the county.

“I do value the importance of public comment and recommend it unequivocally,” Public Access Counselor Luke Britt said in an email. “It does, however, remain at the discretion of the governing body whether they choose to allow it. And if they do, they may set reasonable rules to keep order.”

Other boards and commissions place various restrictions on public comment. For instance, Spencer-Owen Community Schools offers two chances to speak at their meetings. The first is at the beginning, related to a specific agenda item, and the second is after the meeting has adjourned and can be on any topic. Their policy includes a three minute time limit and that staff and students other than a parent’s own child cannot be specifically named.

In 2022, a new law was passed that requires school boards to take public comment before taking final action on a topic, but the law leaves it up to the board to set a time limit, to “adopt reasonable rules” and to take steps to maintain order. S-OCS’ rules predated the change in law. 

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