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The Northfield City Council this month voted to replace the public comment period held at the beginning of its meetings with a separate "listening session" before the regular meeting — joining Minnesota cities, counties and school districts that have recently altered the way they receive public feedback.

The listening session will last 20 minutes and won't be recorded or broadcast, unlike the traditional public comment period. Topics discussed must be related to city business, and a speaker cannot repeat a comment or question they've shared with the council within the past 90 days. They also cannot raise a topic on that night's agenda. The changes take effect June 1.

Residents can still speak about issues as they arise on the regular meeting's agenda.

City Clerk Lynette Peterson said at the May 7 council meeting that she researched how other cities handle public comment and the change will allow council meetings to have a more predictable length.

Residents who want to speak will be encouraged to sign up by noon on the day of the listening session.

Speakers will get two minutes; if more than 10 people sign up, the additional speakers will get to speak first at the next session.

City Administrator Ben Martig said the discussion of how to improve public comment periods began a while ago. The change is partly "in reaction to what we've heard over the last year from the public about wanting to have a more engaging, less formal kind of structure ... to address the entire council," Martig said at the council meeting.

In recent weeks, the City Council's public comment period has featured three well-attended — and emotional — discussions on the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Some residents wanted the council to approve a resolution calling for a ceasefire, though that didn't happen.

Martig said the city's public comment policy is still "very robust" compared with what other nearby local governments provide. He said the sessions can't be broadcast or recorded because of production challenges and the quick turnaround between the listening session and regular meeting.

"You can't ... accomplish everything sometimes with the technology issues," Martig said.

Council Member Jessica Peterson White said the listening sessions will be "less intimidating" and "more inviting" because council members will no longer be on the dais and residents won't have to stand at the podium.

She said she hopes "people on the margins" will be more likely to share their thoughts in the new format.

George Zuccolotto was the only council member to vote against the changes. He said 20 minutes isn't enough time for the public to speak.

"I just think this could be more well-thought out," he said before the vote. "I also think the timing of this is kind of weird."

Fred Rogers, a Northfield resident who has spoken at three recent public comment periods about the conflict in Gaza, said he believes the changes were made to shut down discussion on a topic the council doesn't want to hear about. He said he's hurt by the council's actions.

"They've constructed a narrative where this is helping people," he said. "It doesn't feel to me like it's a very ... sincere attempt to improve access because of the restrictions."

A broader trend

During and after the pandemic, many cities and counties scaled back opportunities for residents to speak at public meetings, including holding separate listening sessions and not broadcasting or recording comments.

Some government leaders say the move away from broadcasting public forums is an attempt to avoid giving bad actors a platform to spread misinformation. But open government advocates argue those forums are an important chance for community members to interact publicly with their government.

Amber Eisenschenk, research manager for the League of Minnesota Cities, said state statute does not require cities to hold a public comment period at all. But she said they do have to hold public hearings on certain topics, many related to land use changes.

However, state statute only applies to statutory cities, which use Minnesota law to dictate rules about council size and powers. Cities that have their own charter may have other requirements.

In Northfield, which is a charter city, section 4.4 of the city's charter says: "At each regular meeting of the council, a time shall be set aside for the hearing of citizens."

Scheduling a separate listening session can be helpful for city officials, Eisenschenk said, because they can create a more approachable environment and better manage time constraints.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the rules governing public comment periods. Northfield's city charter requires time at each regular council meeting for the "hearing of citizens."