Speaking Time At Planning Commission

Dear Management Doctor: 

We have time limits for speaking at our planning commission hearings, but are battling complaints and the media about this. Can you tell us what percentage of planning commission's in the country utilize time limits? 

Under Pressure 

Dear Under Pressure: 

A good guideline for setting time limits was articulated by Albert Solnit, in his book, The Job of the Planning Commission. He states:

"The opportunity to be heard: This is the major and most sensitive element of due process. It is essential that the chairperson have the skill to make everyone feel they have had their say, while at the same time maintaining control of the meeting and moving it along to a conclusion. The local citizenry can be made to feel that the hearing process is totally unfair if space and time are inappropriate, or the commission denies them the chance to comment on the matter being heard."
Although I'm not aware of any study showing what percent of planning commissions utilize time limits, from my own experience, I find that virtually all high-volume commissions use time limits. I suggest that time limits be set by local customs and according to the volume of activity, along with sensitivity to due process. As a rule of thumb, I suggest: 

Staff Presentation: 5 to 15 minutes 
Many communities don't set a time limit for staff presentations, but I believe staff reports are generally too long. 

Applicant: 5 to 15 minutes 

Supporters and Opponents: 3 to 5 minutes each 
Some communities allow supporters or opponents to give their time to another supporter or opponent so that person can make a longer presentation. 

Applicant Rebuttal: 3 to 5 minutes 

Staff Wrap up: 3 to 5 minutes 

Please let me know how this works out. 

The Management Doctor
P.S. - Other readers, how would you handle this?  

Reader Responses

In response to the recent inquiry about time limits for speaking at Planning Commission hearings--our Commission uses time limits only when necessary due to the nature of an item or number of people wishing to speak. For short agendas, or simple, non-controversial hearings, there is usually no time limit imposed. When there are dozens of people wishing to speak, the Chair normally sets a 3-minute limit for speakers. The limit does not apply to staff (we're usually pretty brief anyway) or to the applicant. 'Donating' time to others is not permitted, but speakers with new input (not rehash of something already said) may be granted additional time by vote of the Commission or, if only a short time to wrap up, by the Chair. Most people seem to understand that the time limits allow a more efficient hearing, and allow everyone to get home the same night!"

Perry Valantine
Asst. Development Services Director
Costa Mesa, CA

As you can imagine, Berkeley has no shortage of speakers at meetings. For the public comment period that starts every Council meeting, the Clerk draws 10 cards submitted by people who want to speak. Each person is allowed 3 minutes. They often "donate" their time to someone else who may not have been lucky enough to have their name pulled.

When there are many speakers for a particular item at a Zoning Adjustments Board meeting, the Chair will allocate a certain amount of time to each group and suggest that they organize themselves to present their point of view.

Wendy Cosin, Berkeley Planning Department

Time limits at Planning Commission meetings are double-edged swords. Many people come for an opportunity to be heard and understood. PC Meetings are generally more accessibly than Councils and Boards. Please withold name. Several systems I've seen: A number of years ago, Tuolumne County, California, had a system where the Commission would "workshop" publicly before the meeting and set "item time limits" based on anticipated responses. As I understand it, if the item was running over the allocated time, they would continue the matter to the end of the meeting and go to the next item on the agenda.

Logan, Utah has no time limits for most projects. The Chair had a "three row" rule. If there were three or more rows filled with participants for a project's hearing, she would first ask that subsequent speakers not repeat previously raised issues, as well as holding applause, etc. Then she would set a time limit per speaker, 3-5 minutes. If the issues were really narrow and the public interest large, she would sometimes request that "sides" for a project get together and appoint a spokesperson or persons. The spokesperson(s) would be allocated 15-30 miutes to present salient points for the group. If the controversy were known in advance, the spokesperson arrangement was usually made before the meeting to provide time to prepare.

My favorite was from the City of Salinas, California, in the early 1990s. The City has a large Council chamber. You really can't be heard without the microphone. On controversial hearings, the Mayor sets a time limit for speakers and asks for "no repeating of previously raised issues." A simple egg timer is set. When the bell goes off, the Mayor turned off the public's microphone and gaveled for the next speaker.

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