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A guide to public comment periods

Bellingham community leaders offer advice for people seeking to have their voices heard

The front entrance of City Hall at 210 Lottie St. in Bellingham, Wash., on April 24, 2024. Public comment periods are typically held inside City Hall on Mondays at 7:00 p.m. // Photo by Oren Roberts

On many Monday evenings, the Bellingham City Council opens its chambers to public participation and gives the microphone to the people, three minutes at a time. 

Public comment periods offer an opportunity for people to share opinions and connect with other members of the community. However, they’re often attended by the same group of familiar faces. 

“Sometimes you see new residents and citizens, and that's great to see people come out and express what's going on and what's of concern to them,” said Bellingham City Council member Dan Hammill. “Having that diversity of opinion really helps, I think, as a council member.”

While some first-timers may be hesitant to speak during public comment periods, Bellingham City Council member Jace Cotton said new voices can be the most impactful.

“As in many aspects of local government, a relatively small number of people regularly and repeatedly participate, and in some cases, not in the most effective or productive way,” Cotton said. “People stand out and are more effective when they haven't given public comment before or do not do so frequently.”

Sarah Gardner is a board member of the Birchwood Neighborhood Association and an organizer with Save the Waterfront, an organization that advocates against ABC Recycling’s proposed metal shredder. She has spoken in opposition of the shredder during public comment periods and has found aspects of the public comment period frustrating. 

“It's an unbelievable amount of work to have community voices heard, and I wish that wasn’t the case,” Gardner said. “I wish that the City and the Port would listen to people's concerns more, honestly.”

Gardner said that the three-minute time limit on public comments can feel restrictive, especially when public comment periods take place after the Council has already decided on the issues people come to comment on. 

“I support creating focused, subject-specific public comment periods before each agenda bill so that the public can comment before council action,” Cotton said. “For many, it is very frustrating to only be able to comment after the conclusion of the council's business, and that arrangement also reduces the value of public comment to the meeting.”

However, pre-vote comment periods are not currently the norm at Bellingham’s City Council. 

“We know that [public comment] comes after the vote … so it's not necessarily going to influence policy decisions in that moment, but it does go on public record,” said Liz Darrow, the civic engagement program director for Community to Community Development

Darrow said that much of the value of public comment periods comes from building connections among community members and not necessarily by shaping the opinions of the council members. 

“There's space created for community engagement and for people to really put together their own priorities,” Darrow said. “Before it even gets to city council, what really matters is the work that the community is doing together.”

For those set on speaking directly to the Council, Council member Cotton offered some advice.

“My advice would be to prepare your comments in advance, consider sharing personal stories and experiences, and to keep your comments concise,” he said. “I would also recommend emailing council members after your testimony if you would like council members to have the opportunity to further engage with you — otherwise we won't know how to get in touch.”

Eileen McCracken is the vice president of the membership team for the Bellingham chapter of the League of Women Voters. She described the different techniques she’s seen people use to send an effective message during public comment periods. 

“I've seen everything from mom and pop show[ing] up because they're concerned about an issue to organized, concerted efforts … where large numbers of people show up,” she said. “People may have been given scripted comments, so the group is able to cover a lot more than three minutes because the first person does three minutes, and then the next person builds on that with their three minutes.”

For those who would rather not speak during comment periods but still wish to have their voices heard, there are other options. 

“You can call your city council member and ask them to meet you for coffee. You can ask them to come to your neighborhood association meeting. I found that they're often more than happy to come meet people those ways,” McCracken said. The Council’s contact information can be found through the city’s website.

Additionally, comments do not need to be made in-person. Though the option to weigh in remotely via Zoom during public comment periods was largely discontinued in February after Zoom-bombing incidents, the Council takes accessibility requests.

“People still can Zoom in,” Hammill said. “All they have to do is contact the Council office and just say, ‘I need special accommodations’ and that will be granted.”

Tara Villalba, a long-time member of the Bellingham Tenants Union, said she thinks it’s important that the City provide online access to public comment periods for those who cannot attend in person. She also took issue with the way that emailed comments are received. 

“Written comments submitted over email need to be posted online so they can be seen by everyone, not just [the] Council or whoever monitors the emailed comments. Otherwise, it’s like those comments never happened,” Villalba said. 

She had several ideas for how the Council should address systemic inequities around public comment periods, including providing more language access.

“[Public comment] needs to be able to be given in languages other than English, including ASL,” Villalba said.

Darrow agreed, saying that broader language access allows for broader participation. 

“In the 12 years or so that I've been going to City Council meetings, the first time that I saw Spanish language interpretation was in February, when they started talking about shutting down the Immigration Advisory Board,” Darrow said. “I believe they had Punjabi, Russian and Spanish interpretation and translation of documents, which allowed for a much more diverse participation of the community.”

Beyond City Hall, local organizing groups offer opportunities for people to share ideas, collaborate and find solutions to community issues.

“Find yourself a political home where, even if the answer from the government is ‘no’ the work continues on,” Darrow said. “I believe that there always is a way, and the energy that comes from people getting together and working on things is much more encouraging than three minutes in public comment.”

Oren Roberts

Oren Roberts (they/them) is a city news reporter this quarter at The Front. They are a third-year completing an interdisciplinary concentration in Trauma-Informed Journalism through Fairhaven College. They fill their free time with fermentation projects, paddleboarding and tending to their houseplants. You can contact them at

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