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Public Comment



Information contributed by: Karen Vale (@karenv), Susie Cambria, Scott Eustis (@eustatic), Mathew Lippincott (@mathew), Brian Butler.

Welcome to the Public Comment resource page!

This page was compiled by many different people who participate in the Public Comment process. Be sure to edit the page and add anything we might have missed! On this page you will find:

Be sure to check out the August 1st, 2016 OpenHour on Public Comment as well!

About Public Comment:

What is Public Comment?

Public commenting is a process that allows individuals, organizations, agencies, and businesses to provide input on proposed environmental decisions. (From the Environmental Law Institute Ocean Program)

Public comments are important for a variety of reasons. When it comes to environmental decisions, a good aim is to get as many people to submit comments as possible. Often the “other side” (ie: big industries) will comment asking for rules to be more lax -- the specific ask totally depends on what the issue is. The point of getting a lot of people involved and submitting comments is to balance out the “other side” requests -- if more people ask an agency for better protections, then it gives them the support they need to make decisions that will better protect environmental resources.

How do I submit a Public Comment on an issue?

It is important to note that different states have different processes and standards for submitting comments. Public Comments can often be made in an oral or written format. You can do both. Depending on the agency and the hearing type, sometimes what is said at a public hearing is not on the record so be careful of this. Always inquire if the statements are on the record and submit a written comment to be sure.

See the draft outline section for more information on written and oral comments.

How long do comment periods normally stay open?

This depends, typically 30-60 days, but sometimes longer. The public can request that the agency extend the comment period. Normally this request has more weight coming from a big organization or elected officials. If you request an extension, you need to express a good reason and support your request with information supporting your argument on why it should be extended.

Note from experience, Karen Vale of Cape Cod Bay Watch: We recently decided to not ask for an extension because, after weighing options, it seemed more beneficial to not delay the process any further. So strategize and ask what the benefit would be for an extension. If you want more time to rally troops to submit comments, need more time to research and read the documents, then go for it.

How are Public Comment periods publicized, and where do you find out about them?

Sometimes the easiest way to follow comment periods is by subscribing to email alerts from advocacy organizations working on issues you care about -- groups often sent out “action alerts” asking supporters to submit comments (often they will draft a blurb for you that you can copy and paste or change how you see fit). If you really want to submit the best comment, don’t use groups’ generic comments. Draft/submit your own. It can be strategic to keep the same “asks” or add in your own on top of the group asks.

Tips on Public Comment:

If there is an opportunity, is written or oral public comment better?

You can do both!

Hearings and verbal testimony: Verbal testimony is helpful. This is a forum that has agencies show up to the table and face the public, increasing accountability and public awareness of the issue. “Your written testimony may be any length. If long, prepare a shorter version to deliver at the hearing or roundtable. Practice and time it to make sure you are within the time limit.” Environmental Law Institute Ocean Program

Sometimes hearings are not automatic, and you might need to make a request for it. This is often the case with non-rulemaking issues. Check what the rules are and read the draft rules, permits, whatever you are commenting on, often there is a section about commenting or hearings. When in doubt, use the contact listed on the documents to ask. If you make a hearing request, include information to support your request, and ask others to make same request. Often it is helpful to ask your elected officials to make the request as well.

Should I submit a comment on my own, or with other people?

With others is better than nothing, but individual comments are best. Agencies collect all comments - and sort them into major points in categories. If 100 individual people as for something or make the same point, the agency is more apt to make the change or consider the comment. If 100 people sign on to one letter, sometimes that is seen as one comment.

Is there an outline I should follow? Or specific things I should include?

There isn’t really an outline. Comments can be in letter form, in bullets, a couple sentences, or a 30 page document. Make sure to address any questions the agency has specifically asked in the proposed rule, or whatever you are commenting on. Always include the document number in the header and follow any directions in the proposed rule, draft permit, etc.

See tips and examples of Public Comments see the Resources and Outlines section below.

What can make my comment more compelling?

Be sure to support your point with data or other valid information. Many times your personal connection to the issue is also really important in comments, but it’s best to back your feelings on the issue up with information.

“If there is a quote, statement, or piece of data that is particularly compelling, consider making it into a poster (dry-mounted) and displaying it at the hearing.” Environmental Law Institute Ocean Program)

Note from experience, Susie Cambria, Public policy consultant: Sometimes it’s hard to get people to pay attention to your issue or concern, you can try to jazz it up. Once I wrote a fairy tail to go along with my public comment that included information to support my argument. That got their attention as well as other media outlets which brought more eyes to the issue. (paraphrased)

How big should my ‘ask’ be on a Public Comment? IE: should I shoot for the stars in what I want, or try to meet people where they are?

Shoot for the stars, but be sure to include reasonable requests as well.

Note from experience, Scott Eustis of Gulf Restoration Network: In thinking about the asks you are making in your public comment, be specific, and know where the pressure points are in what you’re looking to address. You shouldn’t not be afraid to “shoot for this stars” in what you want, but be sure to identify specific concerns and ways those asks or concerns could be addressed. You want to make it possible for people to address them. (paraphrased)

If I have alternative recommendations, should I include them?

Yes. You can just state that X hasn’t been considered, it should have, and here’s why….

Note from experience, Scott Eustis, Gulf Restoration Network: It’s always good to have recommendations, for example, you could use data or a lack of data to ask for further studies. Point to why those studies are important, where and why they have been done in the past, and outcomes that have supported your cause. (paraphrased)

What is most effective in terms of tone?

Be factual and courteous. While passion can be good, don’t threaten.

Is there anything I should be careful not to do?

Try to not ask an agency to do something that is outside their purview. Try to remain specific to the issue at hand and don’t miss the deadline.

Resources and outlines for making Public Comments:

Resources for Public Comments:

Examples of Public Comments:

Draft outline for a written Public Comment (from Susie Cambria):

Further information can be found in: Communications for DC Advocates: How-to's and lessons learned over 15 years by Susie Cambria. CommsGuide0911-UD021512.pdf

First Paragraph

  1. If you represent an organization, start with a statement about your organization including what geography you are representing.
  2. Briefly explain why you are writing. Include a short statement about the consequences of doing nothing (keep to one/two sentences).
  3. Thank the official for taking an interest in the issue (if applicable).

Middle Paragraphs

  1. Solutions/recommendations, action you want taken. Be specific.
  2. What it will take for the solutions/recommendations to be implemented—funding, policy change, practice shift, compliance with existing law
  3. Party responsible for implementing changes
  4. Consequences of doing nothing
  5. How you will know changes have occurred. Be sure to include measurable outcomes.

Last Paragraph

  1. Summarize the issue and action you want taken
  2. Offer assistance and be sure to provide your phone and email

Draft outline for a Oral Testimony (from Susie Cambria):

Further information can be found in: Communications for DC Advocates: How-to's and lessons learned over 15 years by Susie Cambria. CommsGuide0911-UD021512.pdf

First paragraph

  1. Testimony typically includes the opener “Good morning Chairman Smith OR Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee on XYZ.”

  2. If you represent an organization, start with a statement about your organization including which geography you are representing if you are a resident.

Example: Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee on (rest of committee name). I am (your name) and I am the (your title or role) at (organization). (Organization's mission). We are located in (fill in) and serve (brief description of population and number served last year or the last quarter).

  1. Next briefly explain why you are writing. Include a short statement about the consequences of doing nothing (keep to one/two sentences). Be sure to include a list of the agencies/divisions involved.

Middle Paragraphs

  1. Details about the problem. Include analysis, data, charts, and tables.
  2. Solutions/recommendations, action you want taken. Be specific.
  3. What it will take for the solutions/recommendations to be implemented—funding, policy change, practice shift, compliance with existing law
  4. Party responsible for implementing changes
  5. Consequences of doing nothing
  6. How you will know changes have occurred. Be sure to include measurable outcomes.

Last Paragraph

  1. Summarize the issue and action you want taken
  2. Thank the chair and the committee for the opportunity to comment
  3. Offer assistance. In testimony include a statement such as “If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them.” If you are submitting a statement for the record, include the names of people who can respond to questions as well as the phone numbers and email at which they can be reached.

Example: Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. Should you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them. Feel free to contact me after the hearing with questions; my phone is (telephone number, note if cell) and my email is (email address).

Resources for Organizers

Below are tips for organizing a group/groups of speakers for a public hearing:

  1. Coordinating how to get there is key: rent a van, dedicate a meeting time, et cetera and have your group enter the same time at the location you are presenting.
  2. Try to bring at least 20 people. Commissioners receive packages before their votes/decisions and tend to have their minds made up beforehand. But if you visibly show there are a lot of people against a project, sometimes decision makers will request further studies or stop a project until further investigation. It's a good delay tactic.
  3. Research the commissioners/decision makers: what their interest are, have they historically voted or supported a particular position etc.
  4. Get there early. Agenda items may move around, your group should be prepared to present at a different time, if necessary.
  5. Make sure all speakers in your group fill out a comment card and sign in. Follow the correct sign-in procedure that is required.
  6. Introduce yourself as a group during the open commenting period and you may even state if you have other events happening around a particular issue.
  7. You can mention relevant research notes on the Public Lab. Helps other people present know where to look for more information.
  8. Picket signs are not usually allowed in hearings, but coordinated shirts and one-page handouts are great. It makes your group look organized.
  9. Keep concise and to the point. Sometimes when there are a lot of speakers, 3-minute public comment can be reduced to two minutes, or even one. Be prepared ahead of time for this possibility.
  10. Provide flashcards of what people are going to share, makes it flow as a whole.
  11. If you have numbers, figures, facts, bring those.
  12. Get specific about the how the project will affected each individual speaker.
  13. Avoid saying things like "we don't have anything against this project just not in our area" or something along those lines. NIMBY get destroyed. (Not In My Backyard).
  14. If you have scientist and architects interested in the environment, or anyone outside the direct community (aka not a resident), bring them too. Hearing outside testimonies of how the project/proposal is detrimental beyond the people living there helps a lot.
  15. Organize a town hall meeting with an unbiased moderator. Organize all the stake holders and the benefactors together in one room. Allow people to speak under a set of rules so that no one offends another. Allow everyone equal time to speak. Record the recommendations and share them.

Examples of Sunshine Efforts for Public Comment

-Gulf Restoration Network's Live Map (Oct 2016) of Wetland Comment Periods:

-Environmental Law Institute's Map of RESTORE Act Parish Planning


tool methods resource public-comment method community-organizing