Making Public Participation Legal

A publication of the National Civic League, this report offers legal frameworks and tools for state and local governments to use in order to enhance public participation within their communities. The paper presents the argument that the vast majority of public meetings are run with little citizen input, interaction, or deliberation. It includes model ordinances such as “A Model Municipal Public Participation at the Local Level,” “A Model State Public Participation,” and “A Model City Charter Language for Citizen Advisory Bodies.” These tools can be used to increase the scope and duration of public participation, garnering a greater range of collaboration and insight. 

The document was compiled by a Working Group on Legal Frameworks for Public Participation, a group made up of representatives from the International Municipal Lawyers’ Association, International City/County Management Association, American Bar Association, National League of Cities, National Civic League, Policy Consensus Initiative, National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, and Deliberative Democracy Consortium. 

The paper presents the argument that the vast majority of public meetings are run with little citizen input, interaction, or deliberation. Turnout is either extremely low or high, but in both situations citizens are usually only given 3 minutes of time to ask questions or make comments. Part of the reason that public participation is lacking in its scope and duration is the current legal framework that governs public participation. These laws can work to discourage public officials from reaching out to citizens and often are so outdated that they do not apply to current practices such as the use of social media and other online tools. 

To address the lack of public participation, this paper outlines several ways in which the process can be enhanced in the section “Policy Options for Strengthening Public Participation at the Local Level.” In this section, the authors propose several methods that local and state governments can use to strengthen public participation, such as emphasizing proactive-network based recruitment to bring more new faces to the decision-making process. However, it is noted that many of these options require action by local government, such as the adoption of more successful and participatory formats for public meetings and the appointment of a “public participation coordinator” within City Hall. 

To adopt some of these practices into law, the working group provides legal tools that state and local governments can use in considering their options when it comes to public participation. These documents include a model public participation ordinance for local governments, a model public participation act for state governments, and a document with model city charter language for Citizen Advisory Bodies. 

The model municipal public participation ordinance includes definitions of key terms, a public participation policy, principles for public participation, and language to designate both a public participation specialist and a public participation advisory board. The model state public participation act is an amendment to the State Administrative Procedure Act and Government in the Sunshine Act. It includes the following sections: definitions of key terms, public participation policy, commitment to agency or municipal authority discretion, the language to designate a public participation specialist, the ability for agencies and municipalities to collaborate broadly with each other, and terms for public participation meetings. The Model City Charter Language for Citizen Advisory Bodies includes a constitution, powers and duties, functions, appointments and removals, administrative support, and facilitation support. 

Publication Date: October 2013

Related Organizations:

  • National Civic League

Related Toolkits:

Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Engagement
  • Policy analysis/recommendations

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