Northfield City Council will shift comment period to 'listening sessions,' echoing a broader trend at public meetings

The Northfield City Council last week voted to replace the public comment period held at the beginning of council meetings with a separate "listening session" to be held before the regular meeting — making it one of a number of Minnesota cities, counties and school districts that have recently altered the way they receive public feedback.

The new listening session will last 20 minutes and isn't 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 last 90 days or bring up something on that night's agenda. The changes go into effect June 1.

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

City Clerk Lynette Peterson said at the May 7 council meeting she researched how other cities handle public comment. The change will allow council meetings to have a more predictable length, she said. Residents will also "be encouraged" to sign up to talk by noon on the day of the listening session.

Residents will still get two minutes to speak; 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 Northfield City Council's public comment period has featured three well-attended — and emotional — discussions related to the war between Israel and Hamas. Some residents wanted the council to approve a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, though that didn't happen.

Martig said the city's public comment policy is still "very robust" compared to what other local governments provide around Northfield. 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 up on the dais and residents won't have to stand at the podium. 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, saying 20 minutes wasn't enough time.

"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."

Northfield resident Fred Rogers, who has spoken at three recent public comment periods about the conflict in Gaza, 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 cities don't have to hold a public comment period at all, though they do have to hold public hearings on certain topics, many related to land use changes.

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