The Art of Mic-Drop

How to give a great public comment and why it matters

Local government meetings aren’t known for being convenient, welcoming, positive, or even productive, depending on who you talk to. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to catch the kind of city council highlights that make the evening news, or even just an episode of NBC’s Parks and Rec, you’d understandably turn down an invitation to watch it happen in real time. Who wants to spend a weeknight dinner hour in a stuffy room, full of well-dressed bureaucrats, speaking in terms most of us are unfamiliar with? Who wants to listen to their neighbors air every perceived grievance to their elected officials? And who wants to shell out for childcare so that they can attend, speak in front of an audience, and not have to shush their hungry kids while they pay attention to the proceedings?

Not many of us, even if we know it’s important.

Fortunately, my first time attending a local government meeting was relatively smooth. In the few months prior, I had been quietly casting nets to see who I’d reel in to start a public art movement in my small, coastal California community. Over that time, I had scooped up a lot of enthusiastic neighbors, and waded my way through the hemming and hawing of some equally skeptical ones (“What if someone wants to paint a giant penis on the wall?”). I felt like at this point, I could navigate just about any conversation on making our public spaces more beautiful and safe.

I had also just returned from a trip to Chicago, freshly inspired by the city’s walkability, the ubiquitous public art, and the Keith Haring exhibit. I was particularly excited about how that mural was completed by 500 students from across 63 area high schools. If they could pull it off in Chicago, why not in my town? My zeal for beautifying my scrubby, sandy little city was at its zenith. 

And yet, when I stood in front of the Parks and Recreation Commission that October night, I found my mouth dry and my stomach heaving. What was I doing here, again? Why did I think I had anything to offer this room of strangers who were tasked with running our city? I was just a stay-at-home mom who sometimes did artsy-crafty things - when I wasn’t changing diapers, or the myriad of other daily tasks that always clamored over the call of the brushes and paints gathering dust in the garage. Most unnerving was that there was no one else in the audience. Would anyone even show up for these big projects? Somehow, my ideas suddenly felt too small to make a difference but too big to pull off.

Despite this, when the chairperson called for general public comment, I found my feet heading to the podium in the middle of the room. My hands and voice shook as I read the words I had written (and rewritten a few times). I smiled and nodded as I answered questions from the dais, forcing myself to breathe between sentences. When I was done, I thanked them for their time and walked out of the building. 

Then I went about my business bringing two public murals to life and assisting with two other public art installations that next year. Most of it happened without the help of anyone in that room - not their money, time, or even permission. So why did I bother? 

First: I did not want to find myself on the receiving end of an exorbitant fine, or worse, having to remove any work that I or my volunteers labored to make a reality. Fortunately, I had read the city’s laws and already determined that the word “mural” did not even appear in the municipal code, let alone dictate what private citizens could or could not do to decorate their homes and businesses. I concluded that the staff simply needed me to politely point that out, to save us all time and trouble down the road.

Secondly: I wanted the city to understand who I was, why I was doing this, and where I was coming from. My comments to the dais were not ones of scorn, ridicule, or suspicion that our town had been neglected by local leaders. Instead I spoke of identity, community, and a sense of place and belonging. These folks heard criticism from voters all day long, so I knew a word of positivity could go a long way.

More than anything, I wanted my ideas to be shared in a public forum, in a room full of people whose job it is to gauge the public sentiment and act accordingly. Those folks simply would not have heard my perspective if I had not shared it. Based on how empty the council chambers were that night, the commissioners would have carried on assuming no one in town (other than themselves) cared about making it more beautiful and welcoming. And my community would have been worse off, or at least a little less colorful.

If you’re looking to shout somewhat effectively into the void, here’s how to do it well.

  1. Be curious enough to learn the rules of the game. Government at all levels can be complicated at best, yet some of the most labyrinthine policies have their roots in history, culture, or catastrophes. Ask a lot of (seemingly) dumb questions. Find the context of what you’re unhappy with. It may have just been overlooked for a long time, or there may be an explanation for it.

  1. Start from a genuine, positive place. The ability to criticize the government is a cheap and common gift. You can offer praise and approval for something the council has already done, or suggest a thoughtful alternative to a problem you’ve seen. Be honest and clear. These folks can tell if you’re only around to hear the sound of your own voice.

  1. Keep your airtime tight. You’re allotted a few minutes (and they’ll time you). But if you can get the message across in less time, do that. Make it personal, make your point, and move on. In a world where everyone is competing for attention, it’s better to speak well than to speak a lot.

  1. Make it a field trip. It’s dangerous to go alone! With the typical demographic of city council audiences, do what you can to bring neighbors who support your position. If you can’t find them, go anyway. When you speak up, you give permission for others to do so as well, and you may just find your people in the process.

Public input is truly a double-edged sword, one we can wield with equal potential for defense or attack (typically, it's the latter). It may be hard to believe that two or three minutes of public testimony can change the fate of our neighbors and communities, especially if it feels like we are the only adults in a room full of hangry toddlers. However, if we get it right and keep at it, our words can move hearts and minds to cast votes in our favor, to put time and money into our priorities, and we can leave our places better than we found them.

Krista Jeffries is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. Originally from Virginia Beach she is a married mother of three currently living on California’s Central Coast. Her many adventures have taken her to healthcare, public art, housing advocacy, and four countries on three continents. She currently serves on the board of the local Housing Authority and is one of the founding members of SLO County YIMBY. She has previously written for the San Luis Obispo Tribune and New Times San Luis Obispo.

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