LETTER: The City Council’s Two Minute Public Speaking Rule

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

I watched the Rules and Ordinances meeting on Monday night. Don’t bother, unless you’re a rule nerd. It’s what the expression “digging deep” was made for. But for some people, it’s exciting and provocative. This is not meant to offend these people. We really need folks who get down to the nitty gritty when discussing how a board, committee, commission, and in this case a Council should behave itself and what the ramifications of this behavior are.

There was a lot of back and forth, what ifs; when that happens what? discussion.

There was one rule that garnered no such discussion … Rule 15:

15.6 All members of the public recognized by the presiding officer to speak during a Public Hearing or during or following the Council’s discussion of the topic of the Public Hearing shall state his or her name and address before making any remarks or asking any questions, shall limit his or her remarks or questions to matter of the Public Hearing, and shall speak for no more than two minutes. He or she may be recognized by the presiding officer to speak a second time on the topic of the Public Hearing for no more than two minutes but only after all other members of the public wishing to speak have spoken once.

It was dismissed as perfect the way it was, and Councilor Piccirilli proudly pointed to the corner of the room, “We have a clock now!” he said with pride.


That won’t make the public feel like they need to hurry, because you folks have a bus to catch … not at all! Nothing says, “We welcome your input” like a ticking clock!

Two minutes … let’s see … What can the average person do in two minutes?

According to ecologyworks.com, here are just a few things:

Make your bed in the morning
Sort through junk mail
Dust your favorite houseplant
Treat a stain

Nowhere on that list do I see introduce a difficult or new concept to a group of people with the hope of persuading them. One of the very first tenets of debate is: back up your argument. Many times two minutes doesn’t even cover the argument, never mind the backup.

Many times, when a citizen is making a point, they want to back up that point with a City rule or ordinance. Let me assure you, none of those were written with brevity in mind!

The really ironic thing about this is that one of the public personally went to this meeting to insure that “Rule 15”, where a member of the public can only speak for two minutes, would not change.

Yep. And that’s the self-same person who took more than her two minutes worth at a previous Economic Development and Planning meeting to quote from a lengthy study that says you should ignore people who show up at meetings, because they don’t represent the public.

Folks, you just can’t make this stuff up! Apparently, according to this study, you can only trust the people who communicate online. That’s a head scratcher, for sure!

So … Rule 15. How about it Council? Let’s go hog-wild. What’d ya say? Let’s make it three minutes. At least then it’s the equivalent of, according to simplyfrugal.ca,

Drinking a glass of water and taking your vitamins
Emptying one rack of a dishwasher
Switching a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer

Ahhh … I feel more productive already!

Send letters to the editor to watertownmanews@gmail.com

26 thoughts on “LETTER: The City Council’s Two Minute Public Speaking Rule

  1. I can understand that the Council would want a time limit on comments in order to maintain the appearance of fairness. But it is hard to cover a complicated topic and present a nuanced argument in two minutes.

    The cause of more vigorous and thorough public discourse would be best served by expanding the time limit to five minutes. Perhaps meetings might run later, but the causes of good government and democratic debate would be enhanced.

    The Council should show that it is serious about listening to citizens addressing complicated issues by amending the two minute rule.

  2. If I am given two minutes to give input at any meeting, I prepare a summary of my points that lasts no longer than two minutes. If I need additional time, I prepare a memo or e-mail with further data to support my points. Seems reasonable. Time is limited and it’s a sign of respect to others to use it wisely!

    • Paul,
      As a former Watertown Town Councilor, who has worked in government for many years, you are more experienced in organizing and presenting your thoughts and opinions in this format. I think we should all be more generous and encouraging to those who might not possess these skill set yet still want to participate in our democracy.

      • With all due respect, this is not that hard. If someone tells me I have two minutes to make my argument, that’s what I have! It is no way precludes people from writing letters or emails or calling councilors or attending public hearings. The Council meets to do its business; without a reasonable limit on public comment, it ends up going late into the evening, which frankly is when bad things start to happen. Can it be 3 minutes? Fine. But this rule didn’t come out of nowhere and it’s not some effort to stifle public comment, simply to limit time out of respect for everyone involved.

        • Thanks Paul. Three minutes isn’t a big deal, and as Anne said, it might cut down on people returning to the podium at the end of the meeting to finish comments that they started at the beginning. Nobody’s saying unlimited time. Could you please let City Councilors know that you feel this is reasonable?

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with Ms Scott. The old two minute rule was for simpler times. As we embark upon the bustle of a metropolis it is logical issues are more complex. Thus operating under old rules is nonsensical.

  4. Councilor Piccirilli could supplement his clock with a hook. The shepherd’s hook was a stage prop used in the 1890s to yank bad performers physically off the stage when restless and disapproving audience members shouted, “Give him ’em the hook.” Piccirilli could loom behind a speaker with his trusty hook at the ready to enforce the two-minute clock. Ludicrous? Maybe, but so is putting a time limit on the free speech of constituents.

  5. I support the 2-minute limit for public comments during City Council meetings. During public comment periods at various city meetings, I’ve seen many of my fellow residents offer a “stream of consciousness,” apparently trying to gather their thoughts while taking all of our time. It’s fine to exercise your *right* to be heard, but please be aware of your *responsibility* to fellow residents whose life energy is being consumed in these meetings. We all have a responsibility to each other to be clear, concise and succinct in making public comments. A 2-minute limit will benefit everyone who attends these meetings by encouraging speakers to prepare their thoughts and Get To The Point.

  6. I’m confused thus some questions regarding the clock.
    1.) Is there a way to convert the timing display on this clock? How is this clock useful as a two minute timer as it only seems to indicate hours and minutes? We are not timing hours. The need is to have a clock that can accurately display and time the two minute countdown with minutes and seconds.
    2.) Where will the clock be located? Tough to address the council if you have to keep looking to your left (or ?) for the time. Will the clock be centrally located? Perhaps the clock is double-sided so it can be set to face the speaker and the city council president. Who will be hitting the reset button?

  7. Hi Kathi and Paul,

    I’m sure that you know that respect goes both ways. If someone cares enough about something going on in this city to show up at a meeting to speak, they shouldn’t have to be a member of Toastmasters, International to be given that right. They need to be listened to, not graded for their “performance.”

    We’re a diverse community (at least until all of those very expensive apartments overwhelm and gentrify us), and differences need to be valued. People with speech issues, English as a second language learners, people with sheer stage fright and organizational issues, etc., etc. need the same opportunities as people who’ve been trained and/or have experience in speaking publicly, Simply saying, “You’ve got two minutes” and setting that obnoxious clock can stifle resident involvement and enthusiasm to participate. It says, “Only members of the debate club need apply.”

  8. I concur with you, Clyde and Joe. Our times are so complex that even 3 minutes doesn’t seem to be enough to adequately cover a topic. (Try explaining all of the ins and outs of Affordable Housing in 25 words or less!) But increasing the time to three minutes would be a start at acknowledging that residents’ thoughts and ideas are welcomed and valued and not just something to be tolerated.

    • Exactly. I feel that the two minute rule is indicative of the value that is sometimes placed on citizen’s opinions. That is, that they are a nuisance rather than a fundamental component of democracy.

      In a democracy, government must respect and consider the opinions of the governed.

      • Citizens have the right to be heard, but they do not have a “right” to a captive audience until they run out of thoughts. Reminder: citizens have *responsibilities* as well as rights. I would ask my fellow citizens to please value my time, and that of the dozens/hundreds of people present during public hearings, and prepare their thoughts in advance and be concise, succinct and relevant in their comments.

  9. AnnMarie,

    Thank you! I’d appreciate you and others spreading this around to folks around Town. Maybe people could just drop a line to the city councilors on their email that reaches all of them at once:

    Just say something like “I support raising Rule 15 from two minutes to three.”

    It couldn’t hurt.

  10. Even 3 minutes would improve the process of the comments stage of meetings. Very likely, it would remove the necessity of a resident needing to speak more than once, which has the unwanted effect of disjointing the thoughts and ideas an individual wants to present. Some people are able to communicate succinctly what they want to say and some of us are less able to express our thoughts cogently. In all cases though, everyone who wants to speak should be able to do so without interruption or criticism on their delivery style.

  11. TWO minutes is TOO short!

    This is an issue that has been challenged by many in the past.

    We’ve had a number of very important issues in the last few years that often require specific details to be outlined. Some people are not as comfortable with speaking in public as others, but yet they have important information to convey. If they need another minute or two to deliver their comments, that seems reasonable.

    Some people may not intend to speak at a meeting, but when they hear certain comments they may decide to speak. They won’t have prepared notes to read and may not be as organized as they typically would otherwise be.

    We need to make people feel that their thoughts are welcome and can participate in the democratic process. Calling Councilors or emailing them is a great approach, but the public doesn’t see or have access to this information. An idea may be voted on and we have no way of knowing how many comments were submitted in advance to Councilors or city staff on either side of the argument unless they are read out loud. That’s why it’s so important that people bring up their issues at the meetings either in person or on Zoom.

    With this new clock people will be distracted from their presentations if they need to keep looking to the side at this clock to see how much time they have left. With no second hands or similar notations, how will they know accurate minutes or seconds they have left? Will an alarm be set when they start to be fair to all? Digital displays don’t seem to be the answer.

  12. Thanks, Joan. Yes, the issues are becoming more complex, but this is a simple one. As you’ve stated, more time to speak = more clarity and information to be shared. Is an extra minute for residents too much to ask?

    • Adding additional time has the complete opposite impact on clarity of thought and information. It allows those that come ill prepared to waste more of everyones time so that they can hear themselves speak.

      You don’t have to be a member of the Toast Masters to sit down and condense your thoughts on a subject into 2 minutes. People try and use that time to present endless list of facts like they are reading them into evidence instead of actually getting to the point they are trying to make.

      • Two minutes is rather draconian. In my experience, few who make comments finish in two minutes including some who favor the rule as it is. I don’t believe that the gong is rung until the speaker runs considerably over.

        Watertown has citizens from all walks of life. They all have a right to make their point at public meetings. For many, it is nerve wracking to get up and speak. Cut those folks some slack. They, and their opinions, deserve respect too.

        We should all try to be concise and organize our thoughts. Some simply have a tougher time with public speaking than others. All are citizens.

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