Q&A: Are City Council Meetings Open to the Public?

  • By: Tara Astbury
  • August 10, 2023
a group of people at a table listening to a presenter from the group

Council meetings are where local governments make the majority of their decisions, including passing budgets and voting on legislation. Additionally, they provide residents an opportunity to participate in matters facing the community. In many cases, members of the community may attend and participate in council meetings.

In this quick article, we’ll help you understand the role of the public in city council meetings, and also explain how meeting software like eScribe helps local governments streamline the management of council meetings. Let’s dive in.

What Is a City Council Meeting?

A city council meeting is a type of civic engagement where council members discuss and vote on issues that affect the community. City council meeting participants often review reports, approve or decline new policies, and make recommendations to other governing bodies, like state assembly standing committees.

Typically, each council member is allowed to vote on matters before the committee. Depending on the jurisdiction, the mayor may cast the deciding vote to avoid swaying council members. City council meetings influence the city’s finances, infrastructure, planning, and municipal services that impact the public.

Are City Council Meetings Open to the Public?

In most cases, the general public may attend a city council meeting. Often, public access is permitted 30 minutes before the commencement of the meeting. Admission to the council chamber is typically granted on a first come, first served basis.

Attending a city council meeting is one of the best ways to get involved in local governance. Some of the reasons the public benefits from attending a city council meeting include:

  • Gain a deeper perspective of the community: City council meetings are a great way to learn what other members of your community think about new legislation and city plans that affect infrastructure, public health, safety, and local businesses. 
  • Get to know local leadership: You may be familiar with local leaders, but you won’t truly understand how they feel about a situation or initiative unless you hear them speak at a council meeting. City council meetings provide a great way to get to know your leaders’ philosophies, which can help to inform your vote the next time you go to the polls.
  • Share your opinion: City councils often invite the public to share their opinions and recommendations on policies, legislation, and amendments. Even though you don’t get to vote, you’ll still get to share your voice and possibly influence their decision-making.
  • Gain a deeper understanding of local politics: Attending city council meetings will provide a broader understanding of how a local government functions, including how initiatives progress and how the various agencies work together.

How to Prepare for a City Council Meeting

Follow these tips as you start to prepare for a local city council meeting.

Invite Internal and Outside Specialists to Participate

You always want to invite key community stakeholders to participate in a city council meeting. For instance, consider inviting community members who regularly engage with residents, such as police officers, healthcare workers, and sanitation personnel. You can also involve other stakeholders who work for the city, such as consultants, analysts, or other experts, to gain a broader perspective on issues facing the committee. 

Create an Engaging Agenda

Create an agenda composed of the public concerns you gleaned from talking to community stakeholders. Put the most pressing subjects first on the agenda, explain why they deserve attention in the meeting, and state the questions you hope to address in each session.

Include Break Times in the Meeting Schedule

Attendees shouldn’t be forced to sit through lengthy city council meetings without a break. The schedule should include substantial breaks and meal periods (if necessary) that not only create room for further discussion, but also allow participants to comfortably check their email and respond to calls.

Provide the Meeting Agenda to the Public in Advance

Aim to release the agenda for a city council meeting at least 24 hours beforehand. This will help attendees become more familiar with the topics you plan to cover, so they show up informed and ready to engage. You should also provide printed copies at the entrance for those who didn’t receive the agenda in advance.

Getting Started With eScribe

In an increasingly digital-first world, many local governments leverage meeting management software to improve communication with local residents and streamline the process of running a city council meeting.  

eScribe, a leading software solution for local governments and school boards, provides key features and capabilities to improve city council meetings, including: 

  • Meeting Manager: With eScribe’s fully digital meeting management platform, you can create, share, modify, and collaborate on meeting materials and also ditch paper completely.
  • Meeting Minutes: The software allows you to effortlessly take notes, create tasks, track attendance, and mark motions as the meeting progresses. 
  • Reporting and Workflows: Save time, manage deadlines, track statuses, and handle reports and approvals with ease.
  • Collaboration Tools: Enable participants to access all of the required meeting materials in person or remotely.

Want to see a real-life example of how eScribe helps local governments work more efficiently? Check out the City of Greensboro Case Study.