Randy Harrison addresses the Hancock County Board of Commissioners during a Sept. meeting.
At a glance
Have something on your mind you’d like to share with public officials? The following boards reserve time during each of their meetings to hear from community members:
Greenfield City Council meets 7 p.m. the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month at city hall 10, S. State St.
Fortville Town Council meets 7 p.m. the first and third Mondays of the month at 714 E. Broadway St.
McCordsville Town Council meets 7 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month at 6280 W. County Road 800N.
Shirley Town Council meets 8:30 a.m. the first Saturday of the month at 409 Main St.
New Palestine Town Council meets 8 a.m. the first Saturday of the month and 7 p.m. the third Wednesday at 42 E. Main St.
Eastern Hancock School Board meets 7 p.m. the second Monday of the month at 10370 E. County Road 250N.
Mt. Vernon School Board meets 7 p.m. the second Monday of the month at 1806 W. State Road 234.
Southern Hancock School Board meets 7 p.m. the second Monday of the month at 4711 S. County Road 500W.
The following boards hear from constituents, but only if they call ahead to reserve a time:
Greenfield-Central School Board meets 7 p.m. the second Monday of the month at 700 N. Broadway St. To request a time to speak at a board meeting, call the superintendent at 317-462-4434 at least one week before the scheduled meeting.
Hancock County Board of Commissioners meets 8 a.m. the first, third and fifth Tuesday of the month at 111 American Legion Place. To speak at a meeting, call Robin Lowder at 317-477-1105.
Hancock County Council meets 8:30 a.m. the second Wednesday of the month at 111 American Legion Place. To speak at a meeting, call Ginny Martin at 317-477-1105.
HANCOCK COUNTY — Have something to say to the people elected or appointed to represent you? You’d better check the board’s policy on public comment before showing up at a meeting ready to voice concerns.
Almost every elected board in Hancock County allows members of the public to weigh in on issues and air grievances during public meetings, but the requirements for doing so vary.
Policies for eight of 13 boards reviewed by the Daily Reporter call for comments from constituents at every meeting, and many allow residents to speak about whatever is on their mind. A handful of others, however, require residents to call ahead to reserve a time to speak. Some require board approval; some limit discussion to items on the agenda.
The Daily Reporter surveyed governing board policies on public comment during their meetings after the Hancock County Tourism Commission recently announced members would have police officers present at their meetings to remove residents who disrupt proceedings by speaking out of turn.
Tourism commission president Earl Smith opened the board’s July meeting warning those present that the board would no longer tolerate disruptions from members of the public. If they want to speak, their name must appear on the meeting’s agenda.
Smith told members of the public if they interrupt proceedings, they will face being removed by law enforcement and possibly charged with a misdemeanor.
The tourism commission doesn’t reserve time during its meeting to hear spontaneous comments from the public, records show.
While Indiana law allows residents to watch government meetings unfold, it doesn’t guarantee them the right to speak during those proceedings, said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.
Key said the Hoosier State Press Association encourages boards to enact policies that allow for public participation, whether time is reserved at the start of the meeting or discussion is allowed after every item on the agenda.
The benefit of doing so is two-fold, he said. Such a policy illustrates to the public that their representatives want to include them in the process. It also gives board members the opportunity to learn from residents, he said.
Locally, board policies for allowing the public to speak vary wildly, records show.
For example, the Greenfield-Central School Board policy requires community members who wish to address the board to submit a written request to Superintendent Harold Olin at least one week before the meeting. The Mt. Vernon School Board, however, gives community members two chances to speak with board members. At the beginning of the meeting, those in attendance may comment only on agenda items. At the end of the meeting, they’re given a chance to speak about anything not listed on the agenda. Comments are limited to three minutes, and the board has even posted to its website suggestions for making an effective presentation.
Elected and appointed officials say the policies in place give them the opportunity to research residents’ concerns and be prepared to address them, but members of the public say they feel they have a constitutional right to address their representatives.
County commissioner Brad Armstrong, who serves as the board’s president, said he prefers residents call ahead to schedule a time to speak at commissioner meetings. The board’s policy stands for two reasons: the public can review the agenda to see what the board will discuss, and members have time to research the topic residents are concerned about, said Armstrong, who is serving his third term.
Occasionally, the board will allow residents to speak out without having to call ahead and schedule a time. So long as the conversation is productive and remains respectful, members will hear them out, Armstrong said, especially when something is added to the agenda at the last minute.
Hearing from residents affected by the policies and decisions the commissioners weigh helps them make informed decisions, Armstrong said.
“I really try to go the extra mile to be inclusive and allow for public input,” he said. “Ultimately, we’re there to represent our constituents. You should want to hear as much input from them as possible.”
Just last week, George Langston, who attends nearly every county council and commissioners meeting, made a request ahead of the board’s meeting to address the three commissioners.
The board let him speak for nearly 15 minutes about concerns he has with an ordinance governing the county’s tourism commission.
The problem with making a request to speak before a board, however, is members have the chance to deny those requests, and they shouldn’t be able to, Langston said.
John Priore, a Blue River Township resident and trustee, agreed, saying the First Amendment guarantees him the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and community members shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to approach the people elected to represent them.
Several boards agree with those sentiments and make it as easy as possible for residents to speak out when something is weighing on their minds.
The Fortville Town Council, for example, reserves time at both the beginning and end of its bi-monthly meetings to hear from constituents. That way residents don’t have to sit through an entire meeting, which can be lengthy and often boring, to address members, officials say.
The Greenfield City Council reserves time at the end of each of its meetings to hear from constituents, and city leaders will listen to just about anything residents have to say.
That dialogue is helpful, they say. Sometimes, residents voice concerns about issues local leaders haven’t thought to address or didn’t know were a problem, city council president Gary McDaniel said.
Last year, for example, a man approached city officials about enacting a civil rights ordinance to protect LGBTQ residents. While the city never took any official action on that request, members heard the man’s concerns and discussion ensued.
Just a few months ago, a Greenfield resident asked the council to draft an ordinance allowing residents to drive golf carts on city streets. Council members have since created a proposed ordinance and continue to discuss it among themselves and city residents.
McDaniel said he hopes residents feel included in the local legislative process because the board gives them a chance to speak up at every meeting.
Sure, sometimes comments are critical, he said; other times their requests can’t be fulfilled by that particular board.
But council members are elected to represent their constituents, and the best way to do that is to listen to them, he said.
“Without time to speak they might feel something is being mishandled,” McDaniel said. “This is a chance for the public to vent their concerns.”