Constructive Public Comment

Wanting to provide constructive and effective public comment to public officials but don’t know where to begin? This guide is for you.

This information has been largely repurposed from the Commenter’s Checklist at regulations.gov for commenting on NPRMs as well as from other sources. It has been annotated, expanded, and modified below to assist you in providing written or spoken comments. This information is intended to serve as a guide; it is not and should not be considered as legal advice. Please seek counsel from a lawyer if you have legal questions or concerns. These tips are meant to help the public submit comments that have an impact and help agency policy makers improve regulations, ordinances, rules, or other decisions.

When engaging with others, apply strong, persistent, polite pressure—and always be gracious and respectful. A hallmark negotiation principle at Preserve Rollins Pass is that there are no wicked people, only wicked problems.

“You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.” —Indira Gandhi

Stated differently: respectfully challenge ideas, not people. Our approach values long-term relationships. We strive to be a trusted partner to the community, understanding that treating everyone fairly and with deference is key. We believe that positive relationships are built on mutual respect and reciprocity; we are committed to treating our partners with the care and consideration we would like to receive, and we hope for the same in return.

A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY SIMPLIFICATION

This page provides tips for submitting effective comments. Throughout this page, the term “Comment” is used in place of the more technically accurate term “Public Submission” in order to make the recommendations easier to read and understand.

OVERVIEW OF ACTIONS THAT TYPICALLY REQUIRE PUBLIC COMMENT

Public comment periods are integral to ensuring that governmental and regulatory decisions are made transparently and with input from the community. While not meant to be comprehensive, here are some actions that typically require public comment:

  1. Environmental Impact Assessments: Projects that may significantly affect the environment, such as construction of highways, power plants, and industrial facilities, often require public comment as part of the environmental review process.
  2. Rulemaking by Federal Agencies: When federal agencies propose new regulations or changes to existing ones, they often open a public comment period to gather feedback from stakeholders and the general public. This is a key part of the Administrative Procedure Act in the United States.
  3. Urban Planning and Zoning Changes: Local governments frequently seek public input on changes to land use plans, zoning laws, and development projects that may impact communities.
  4. Public Land Use Decisions: Proposals involving the use and disposal of public lands, such as national parks or forests, often go through a public comment process. This includes decisions about resource extraction, recreational use, or conservation efforts.
  5. Transportation Projects: Major transportation projects, including new roadways, public transit systems, and airports, usually involve public comment to address community concerns and suggestions.
  6. Permitting Processes: Certain permits, such as those for large-scale industrial operations, water discharge permits, and air quality permits, require public comment before being issued.
  7. School District Changes: Changes to school district boundaries, construction of new schools, and significant policy shifts often involve public hearings and comment periods.
  8. Budget Proposals: Local, state, and federal budgets often go through a public comment process to ensure transparency and public participation in how funds are allocated.
  9. Policy Changes in Health and Safety Regulations: Public health policies, changes to safety standards, and regulations affecting public welfare often require public comment to incorporate diverse perspectives.
  10. Community Development Projects: Initiatives funded by community development block grants or other public funding mechanisms frequently require public input to align projects with community needs and preferences.
  11. Historic Preservation Actions: Decisions related to the preservation of historic sites, buildings, and districts typically involve public comment to balance development with cultural heritage preservation.
  12. Utility Rate Changes: Public utilities, such as electricity, water, and gas providers, often seek public comment when proposing rate changes to ensure that stakeholders’ views are considered.

These processes help ensure that governmental and regulatory decisions are made with transparency, accountability, and community involvement.

OVERVIEW OF CRAFTING CONSTRUCTIVE PUBLIC COMMENT

Crafting constructive public comment is both an art and a science. A comment can express simple support or dissent for a regulatory action. However, a constructive, information-rich comment that clearly communicates and supports its claims is more likely to have an impact on regulatory decision making. The tips on this page are meant to help the public submit comments that have an impact and help policy makers improve regulations, ordinances, rules, or other decisions.

SUMMARY

  • Read and understand the regulatory document you are commenting on.
  • Feel free to reach out to the agency with questions.
  • Be concise but support your claims.
  • Base your justification on sound reasoning, scientific evidence, and/or how you will be impacted.
  • Address trade-offs and opposing views in your comment.
  • Typically, there is no minimum or maximum length for an effective written comment; if you are making a public comment at a hearing, time limits are usually imposed.
  • The comment process is not a vote—one well supported comment is often more influential than a thousand form letters.

DETAILED RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Take careful note of when comment periods end: date, time, and time zone are important. Begin formulating your comments well before the deadline. Additionally, be aware of whether the time is specified in Standard Time or Daylight Time, as this can affect the exact deadline.
  2. Attempt to fully understand each issue; if you have questions or do not understand a part of the regulatory document, proposed change, or action, you may ask for help from the agency contact listed in the document. Please note that although the agency contact can answer your questions about the document’s meaning, official comments must be submitted by following the proper process, form, or by attending applicable meeting(s).
  3. Clearly identify the issues within the regulatory action on which you are commenting. If you are commenting on a particular word, phrase or sentence, provide the page number, column, and paragraph citation from the document, ordinance, statute, law, rule, or other document.
  4. If a rule raises many issues, do not feel obligated to comment on every one—select those issues that concern and affect you the most and/or you understand the best. You do not need to submit comments on all of the proposals in a rule.
  5. Agencies often ask specific questions or raise issues in rulemaking proposals on subjects where they are actively looking for more information. While the agency will still accept comments on any part of the proposed regulation, please keep these questions and issues in mind while formulating your comment.
  6. Although agencies receive and appreciate all comments, constructive comments (either positive or negative) are the most likely to have an influence.
  7. If you disagree with a proposed action, suggest an alternative (including not regulating at all) and include an explanation and/or analysis of how the alternative might meet the same objective or be more effective.
  8. The comment process is not a vote. The board, commission, agency, or government is attempting to formulate the best policy, so when crafting a comment it is important that you adequately explain the reasoning behind your position.
  9. Identify credentials and experience that may distinguish your comments from others. If you are commenting in an area in which you have relevant personal or professional experience (i.e., scientist, attorney, fisherman, archaeologist, botanist, board member, etc.) say so. Pro tip: You can submit two sets of comments—one from a professional perspective and one from a personal perspective—to provide a well-rounded viewpoint.
    • It’s important to clearly distinguish personal opinions from professional statements in your introductory paragraph. For example: “Although I serve on the board of XYZ Enterprises, I am submitting this comment in a personal capacity, not as a representative of the board,” or “While I have my own personal opinions, I am submitting this comment as a member of the board of directors at XYZ Enterprises.”
  10. Agency reviewers look for sound science and reasoning in the comments they receive. When possible, support your comment with substantive data, facts, and/or expert opinions. You may also provide personal experience in your comment, as may be appropriate. By supporting your arguments well you are more likely to influence the agency decision making.
  11. Consider including examples of how the proposed rule would impact you negatively or positively.
  12. Comments on the economic effects of rules that include quantitative and qualitative data are especially helpful.
  13. Include the pros and cons and trade-offs of your position and explain them. Your position could consider other points of view, and respond to them with facts and sound reasoning.
  14. If helpful, use the power of analogies. For instance, consider this example that illustrates the interconnectedness of a proposed ski resort expansion and its broader impacts: “Expanding the ski resort’s operating area is like buying a carload of frozen foods without realizing your freezer is too small. To avoid spoilage, you must buy a chest freezer. Similarly, increasing the resort’s capacity will demand more utilities, housing, and infrastructure. Ignoring these needs could lead to bigger problems, just like ignoring the need for a larger freezer.”
  15. It’s recommended to avoid submitting files in specialized formats such as .docx, .pages, or .pptx. Instead, using a universal standard such as PDF ensures that your comments will be viewed exactly as you submitted them.
  16. Do not embed images in the form’s online text editor. Use Attachments to upload images. Note that in most cases, there are upload maximums; for example, a maximum of 50 files per submission and total file upload size cannot exceed 200 MB (these numbers and limitations can be different.) If you are uploading more than one attachment to a comment web form, it is recommend that you use the following file titles, as this standardized file naming convention will help agency reviewers distinguish your submitted attachments and aid in the comment review process:
    • Attachment1_<insert title of document>
    • Attachment2_<insert title of document>
    • Attachment3_<insert title of document>
  17. Keep a copy of your comment in a separate file saved in multiple locations. This practice helps ensure that you will not lose your comment if you have a problem submitting it using a web form; further, it may come in handy if you wanted to read your written comment at a public hearing or when meeting with agency staff or with elected officials. When you click the button to submit your comment, be sure to wait to view a confirmation or success message before navigating away from the webpage.
  18. Familiarize yourself with Robert’s Rules of Order. Most public hearings and public meetings will operate under some form of parliamentary procedure for meetings.

GUIDANCE ON PUBLIC COMMENT AT A HEARING

  • If you are making a public comment at a hearing, be sure to be aware of any time limitations (usually 3 minutes) and practice beforehand so that you don’t run out of time. You will more than likely need to provide your full name and address before making your comments—this information usually becomes a part of the permanent public record as does a recording of the meeting. If you are speaking on behalf of an organization, state that as well.
  • Please note that speakers can sometimes pool their time, with each person in your group typically contributing three minutes, up to a total of 10 minutes maximum unless specified otherwise. Check with the venue several days in advance, as some localities require speakers to sign up using a designated form by a specific cutoff time, usually the day before the meeting. You will have to provide both first and last names of every person donating their time to the speaker. People donating time must be present at the time of the public comment or the speaking time will be reduced accordingly.
  • To make a public comment, arrive early if attending in person. For virtual meetings, inquire several days in advance or join as early as possible to understand the process for public comments. Some meetings may have a sign-up sheet, while others might use a Microsoft Teams or Zoom raise-hand feature.
  • If you find yourself in agreement with a statement shared earlier during public comment, take the opportunity to expand on it by offering fresh insights or perspectives. Avoid simply repeating what has already been said; instead, add value to the conversation by introducing novel ideas or providing additional context or examples.
  • Sometimes, but not always, the time allotted for public comments may be limited. Therefore, the Chair or administrative staff may reduce the time limit as necessary to ensure everyone has an opportunity to speak. Please note that public comments might be taken out of turn, as in-person participants may alternate with those joining online or via phone, or vice versa.
  • If you exceed your time limit, the Chair will interrupt with, “Thank you, your time is up.” Please do not continue speaking, except to say, “Thank you,” and step away from the microphone or podium, or return to your seat if you spoke from there.
  • After you make a public comment, be aware that the board, commission, agency, or elected officials will typically respond with a simple “Thank you” or “Thank you for your comment.” It is highly unlikely they will engage in further dialogue, although they may occasionally ask a clarifying question regarding your comment. They will not engage in back-and-forth discussions or respond to questions due to time constraints and the difficulty of providing accurate responses to complex and critical issues on the spot. Do not expect the board to answer questions, and refrain from arguing or debating with staff and/or board members.
  • If your comment was emailed, it will be included in the record but not read aloud at the meeting.
  • Finally, it’s worthwhile remembering that while these meetings are held in public, they are not meetings of the public. The meetings are organized and controlled by the local government body. Public expressions of opinion during meetings, such as clapping, cheering, booing, hissing, or speaking over others, or bringing in signs and banners, should be avoided. These behaviors can intimidate participants and potentially suppress free speech by creating an environment where people feel uncomfortable expressing their views. Do your part to make decorum and common courtesy common again. Instead of getting angry or frustrated when someone sees things differently, approach the situation with genuine curiosity. By doing this, you might just gain a deeper understanding of their perspective. Attend assuming you have something to learn.

GUIDANCE ON OPEN HOUSES

  • If you are attending an open house hosted by an agency, be sure to review posters, any PowerPoint presentations (usually on a loop), and ask any questions. Further open house advice:
  • Open Houses may last for several hours, but there’s typically not a formal presentation or speaker—these events are typically self-guided. Allow yourself usually at least 30-60 minutes to review exhibits and ask questions. The general purpose of open houses are to help the public and stakeholders understand the proposed action, explain the NEPA planning process, and provide guidance on how you can provide or submit comments.
  • Typically, you don’t need to provide written comments during the event itself, although blank forms are available to do so if you wish. You usually have time to do so online afterward, once you’ve had a chance to digest the information. However, it’s a good idea to confirm this with the regulatory agency staff before you leave.
  • Generally, lead agency officials will wear uniforms and/or name tags, making them easy to identify. However, project proponents, third-party consultants, and contractors usually do not wear name tags. Be sure to introduce yourself or ask the lead agency to identify the key players in the room.

COMMENTS ARE CONSIDERED SUBSTANTIVE IF THEY:

  • Question, with reasonable basis, the adequacy, completeness, and/or accuracy of information
  • Cause changes or revisions in the alternatives
  • Provide new or additional information relevant to the analysis

POSTED COMMENTS

After submission, your comment will be processed and in some cases, may be posted publicly. At times, an agency may choose not to post a submitted comment. Reasons for not posting the comment can include:

  • The comment is part of a mass submission campaign or is a duplicate.
  • The comment is incomplete.
  • The comment is not related to the regulation, ordinance, or action.
  • The comment has been identified as spam.
  • The comment contains Personally Identifiable Information (PII) data.
  • The comment contains profanity or other inappropriate language.
  • The submitter requested the comment not be posted.
  • The agency may withhold letters containing proprietary information, sensitive cultural or habitat locations, etc.

FORM LETTERS

Organizations often encourage their members to submit form letters designed to address issues common to their membership. Organizations including industry associations, labor unions, and conservation groups sometimes use form letters to voice their opposition or support of a proposed rulemaking, action, or decision. Many in the public mistakenly believe that their submitted form letter constitutes a “vote” regarding the issues concerning them. Although public support or opposition may help guide important public policies, agencies make determinations for a proposed action based on sound reasoning and scientific evidence rather than a majority of votes. A single, well-supported comment may carry more weight than a thousand form letters. The reason: repeating the same message does not provide additional evidence for an agency considering a new rule.

ANONYMOUS COMMENTS

Under the Forest Service’s NEPA process, comments submitted anonymously will be accepted and considered; however, anonymous comments will not provide the reviewer with standing to participate in subsequent administrative or judicial reviews. Stated differently: all contact information is optional; however, anonymous comments will not provide standing to object. All comments received are part of the public record and will be available for public viewing. All personal identifying information (e.g., name, address, etc.), or otherwise sensitive information submitted voluntarily by the sender will be publicly accessible.

USEFUL AND SPECIFIC COMMENTS

As defined in 36 CFR 218.2, specific written comments are those submitted to the responsible official or designee during a designated opportunity for public participation (§218.5(a)) provided for a proposed project. Written comments can include submission of transcriptions or other notes from oral statements or presentation. For the purposes of this rule, specific written comments should be within the scope of the proposed action, have a direct relationship to the proposed action, and must include supporting reasons for the responsible official to consider.

EXAMPLE: I would like to see more small diameter treatment in the moist and cold mixed conifer forest to address the transmission of severe wildfire to private lands from national forest lands.

NON-SPECIFIC COMMENTS

Non-specific comments are outside the scope of the analysis; appear as a “vote” (and the NEPA process is not about voting); do not provide supporting rationale; or lack sufficient specificity to support either a change in the document or to permit a meaningful response (i.e., emotional and without rationale). These comments are not considered.

EXAMPLE: I do not support this project at all. It is not in the best interest of the general public.

WANTING TO COMMENT BUT NOT SURE WHAT TO SAY?

Whether you fully agree, fully disagree, or are somewhere in the middle regarding a project or undertaking, finding the right approach to express your thoughts can sometimes be challenging. While not meant to be comprehensive, here are some additional aspects to consider when critically evaluating a project from inception to completion:

Environmental Impact:

  • Water Quality: Impact on local water bodies, groundwater contamination, water usage.
  • Wildlife and Habitat: Displacement of animals, destruction of natural habitats, impact on local biodiversity.
  • Air Quality: Emission of pollutants, dust control measures, impact on respiratory health of nearby residents.
  • Gasses Being Released: Emissions of harmful gases such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, compliance with air quality standards, strategies to minimize emissions.

Community Impact:

  • Local Economy: Job creation, impact on local businesses, changes in property values.
  • Social Impact: Effect on community cohesion, potential displacement of residents, impact on local culture and heritage.
  • Public Services: Demand on local schools, hospitals, emergency services.
  • Noise: Sources of noise (e.g., rock crushing, highway, motor vehicles, speaker systems), impact on local residents and wildlife, noise mitigation measures.

Health and Safety:

  • Occupational Hazards: Safety protocols for workers, accident prevention, long-term health risks.
  • Public Health: Spread of diseases, access to healthcare, mental health impacts due to changes in living conditions.
  • Toxic Substances: Presence of hazardous materials like lead paint and asbestos, plans for safe removal and disposal, measures to protect workers and residents from exposure.

Infrastructure:

  • Transportation: Changes in traffic patterns, public transportation needs, road wear and tear.
  • Utilities: Impact on water supply, sewage systems, energy consumption.
  • Parking: Availability of parking spaces, impact on existing parking infrastructure, potential for increased parking fees or restrictions.
  • Congestion: Impact on local traffic congestion, potential for increased commute times, mitigation strategies.

Regulatory and Legal Compliance:

  • Permits and Approvals: Necessary governmental approvals, compliance with local, state, and federal regulations.
  • Zoning Laws: Adherence to zoning regulations, potential need for zoning changes.
  • Legal Challenges: Potential for lawsuits, community opposition.

Sustainability and Innovation:

  • Renewable Resources: Use of renewable energy sources, sustainable materials.
  • Green Building Practices: LEED certification, energy efficiency, waste reduction.
  • Innovation: Incorporation of new technologies, innovative design features.
  • Electricity Sources and Costs: Source of electricity (e.g., renewable vs. non-renewable), impact on local energy grid and costs, plans for energy efficiency and conservation.

Cost and Funding:

  • Budget: Total cost estimation, budget allocation, contingency plans for cost overruns.
  • Funding Sources: Identification of funding sources, financial stability, potential for grants or subsidies.
  • Return on Investment: Expected financial return, payback period, long-term financial benefits.

Aesthetics and Design:

  • Architectural Design: Compatibility with local architectural styles, visual appeal.
  • Landscape Design: Green spaces, public areas, integration with natural surroundings.
  • Cultural Considerations: Respect for local cultural and historic landmarks, incorporation of community identity.
  • Light or Light Pollution: Impact of artificial lighting on the environment and local residents, measures to minimize light pollution, impact on local nocturnal wildlife.

Public Engagement:

  • Community Involvement: Opportunities for public input, community meetings, feedback mechanisms.
  • Transparency: Clear communication of project goals, timelines, potential impacts.
  • Education and Outreach: Informing the public about the project, educational programs about benefits and impacts.

Operational Considerations:

  • Maintenance: Long-term maintenance plans, funding for ongoing upkeep.
  • Operational Efficiency: Efficiency of project operations, use of technology to enhance performance.
  • Emergency Preparedness: Plans for dealing with emergencies, disaster resilience.

Considering these and other aspects will provide a comprehensive evaluation of the project, helping you form and provide a well-rounded opinion.

SUBMITTAL METHODS

Typically, comments can be submitted electronically through an agency’s website. Acceptable formats for electronic comments are text or HTML email, Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF), or formats viewable in Microsoft Word (such as .doc or .docx). Written comments can generally be submitted to agency officials, elected officials, and/or board members at public meetings using comment forms. Comments can also be mailed to the agency’s address, however must be postmarked by the end of the comment period. Remember: you must confirm the submittal methods for each action and do not rely solely on this information.

MORE ON THE ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT (EA) PROCESS

  • Federal agencies are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to analyze, document, and disclose the potential environmental and socioeconomic impacts of a Proposed Action and reasonable alternatives before any action is taken.
  • The analysis will be made available to the public in an Environmental Assessment or EA.
    • An Environmental Assessment describes:
      • The existing condition of each resource to be analyzed.
      • Anticipated effects (impacts), both adverse and beneficial to each resource.
      • Plans to mitigate the impacts.
      • Identifies the potential concerns and issues for each resource to be analyzed.
  • NEPA requires that the public and stakeholders be part of the decision-making process.
  • The purpose of the scoping process involves:
    • Ensure public and stakeholder disclosure
    • Provide the public and stakeholders with a clear understanding of the Proposed Action.
    • Solicit public and stakeholder participation
    • Identify relevant issues
    • Identify potential impacts
    • Determine appropriate level of analysis
  • There are typically multiple comment periods: one for the initial scoping and another to review and comment on the Environmental Assessment and Draft Decision Notice which is typically about 6-9 months after an open house event.

THREE QUOTES WORTH REMEMBERING AS PART OF PROVIDING CONSTRUCTIVE PUBLIC COMMENT

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” —Generally attributed to Aristotle

You can disagree without being disagreeable.” —R. Ginsburg

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” —A. Einstein

STAY INVOLVED

Review the final documents and/or meeting minutes to see how the agency or entity addressed specific concerns. Note that the agency might not post every comment individually and sometimes groups similar suggestions together, often without attribution. Additionally, be aware that there can be multiple comment periods and/or multiple public meetings or hearings on a topic. Ensure you stay informed about these opportunities to provide feedback and participate actively throughout the entire process.

Review your local newspaper of record for articles, announcements, and public notices. Also, keep an eye on the Federal Register (this serves as the government’s daily newspaper of record). The Federal Register, published every business day by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is a legal newspaper that includes Federal Agency Regulations, Proposed Rules, and Public Notices.

MORE RESOURCES—ENGAGING IN CIVIL DISCOURSE AROUND POLARIZING ISSUES WITH MARTÍN CARCASSON, PHD

Martín Carcasson, Ph.D., is a professor in the Communication Studies department of Colorado State University, the founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation (CPD), and faculty in CSU’s new Masters in Public Policy and Administration program. He also works closely with International City/County Manager’s Association (ICMA) and the National Civic League, running workshops on public engagement, and is currently serving as a faculty resource for the ICMA Leadership Institute on Race, Equity, and Inclusion. His research focuses on helping local communities address “wicked problems” more productively through improved public communication, community problem solving, and collaborative decision-making. The CPD is a practical, applied extension of his work, and functions as an impartial resource dedicated to enhancing local democracy in northern Colorado. Dr. Carcasson and the CPD staff train students to serve as impartial facilitators, who then work with local governments, school boards, and community organizations to design, facilitate, and report on innovative projects and events on key community issues.

THANK YOU FOR LENDING YOUR VOICE

Regardless of your position on a particular issue and whether or not you align with a popular opinion or hold minority viewpoints, your respectful involvement and participation in the public process is crucial. Your voice, perspective, experiences, knowledge, objections, and values makes our democracy work. The exchange of ideas from a well-informed community weaves a strong tapestry of ideas, fostering both healthy discourse and decision-making. Your contributions to the process are deeply appreciated—thank you.

The primary purpose of our work is to inform the public.

Preserve Rollins Pass background image
Rollins Pass East: Fire restrictions are in effect for USFS lands and Gilpin and Boulder Counties, including Yankee Doodle & Jenny Lakes. No campfires allowed.
close
open