How to not be ‘THAT GUY’ in a public meeting (Editor’s Column)

Niki Turner

The very first freedom listed in the Constitution is the freedom of religion, followed by freedom of speech and then freedom of the press.

Quite a few individuals have raised concerns this week about their freedom of speech, particularly as it pertains to public meetings. Along those same lines, of the three public meetings I attended this week, I saw examples of bad behavior by members of the public in two of them, so this is just a little guidance on how to not be the guy (or gal) who walks into a meeting and makes everyone cringe.

In Colorado, the methods by which public meetings are conducted was first passed in 1972. The law currently states, “all meetings of two or more members of any state public body where any public business is discussed must be open to the public.”

Closed meetings, or executive sessions, are generally restricted to legal matters and personnel.

Now, just because a meeting is a public meeting doesn’t mean everyone present gets to go on a rant, stir up a discussion or start asking questions about random topics and expect the members of the board or district or what-not holding the meeting to respond to them.

Why not? Because it’s out of order.

Meetings follow a pretty standard order for a reason: efficiency. Everyone hates long meetings where nothing is accomplished… except for those oddballs who like to hear themselves talk.

I can’t count the number of meetings I’ve covered where someone interrupts a speaker, tries to make a point or tosses out extemporaneous commentary about something that isn’t even on the agenda, thereby dragging the board into discussion about a topic they weren’t planning to address, and likely creating confusion. Don’t be THAT GUY.

Worse yet are the people who storm into a meeting and go on a tear about some action a board has taken without doing their homework first. Nine times out of 10 they’re reacting to something they’ve heard in the rumor mill and haven’t bothered to research for themselves. Don’t be THAT GUY, either.

And everyone has been in a meeting where multiple people keep asking the same question after the question has already been answered. That’s because they aren’t actually listening, they’re planning what they’re going to say next. That’s not only annoying, it’s rude.

There’s a right time and way to exercise your freedom of speech in a public meeting: during the time set aside for public comment (usually at the very beginning of the meeting, so don’t show up late and expect to have your say!), or when the board asks for public comment as they move through agenda items.

In a nutshell, it goes back to a much older rule than the rules that govern public meetings: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

And you know, you can always  write a letter to the editor, too, as part of your freedom of speech. As long as you sign your name.