How Not to Run a Public Hearing
We often hear about the lack of “transparency” or that “the process wasn’t followed,” and it is actually my belief that often enough this isn’t true. Most of the time public meetings go fine, input is taken, and decisions are made respectfully and properly. That said what I have recently experienced were a couple of poorly run, if not rude, unprofessional public hearings on high profile issues. Hearings like these give the public pause, divide communities, and do a disservice to the process.
The first troubled meeting was a special meeting of the Community & Economic Development Committee which was held to take action on the M.O.R.E ordinance. Because this meeting was held to cover such a controversial and significant ordinance it deserved a special meeting to be held, so that all sides of the issue could be given time to be heard, but Alderman Joe Davis ran the meeting with a strict adherence to time limits, cutting off people regardless if they were making a point or in the middle of wrapping up. Of course there is only so much time in the day, but on topics that have wide ranging, long running impacts, it would be good to give people a little leeway in speaking their mind and if needed have multiple meetings prior to voting on an issues. Understand, the value of letting the public be heard, is to encourage the broader conversation, to hear the possible costs and benefits of a proposed change, and simply to insure a fair process was conducted. The input was limited to the point that there was little discussion on the topic, and almost no questions were asked of those in opposition, which gave the appearance that their concerns were irrelevant to the discussion. Finally, this special meeting was held the day prior to the Common Council meeting which was to take action on this ordinance. This meant that there was little time for the press and the public to weigh in on the issue. This combination of limiting speech and enforcing short time frames eliminated much of the public debate on the topic, which at the time left many questions unanswered.
The second troublesome meeting was held by Milwaukee County with the intention to take public input regarding the proposed land sale of a portion of the Milwaukee County Grounds to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A large crowd showed up to speak out against the land sale, some members were concerned with saving the Monarch Trail, some felt greenfield development wasn’t desirable, and there were some of us who were there to argue expansion in Wauwatosa isn’t the right choice for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee or our region. The issues with this meeting started with arbitrarily short time limit for individuals to speak, and ended with an even more arbitrary meeting end time. Around 7:45 pm Supervisor Toni Clark announced the meeting would end at 8 pm and although numerous, if not thirty people, hadn’t had a chance to speak she explained that some of us have to get home to take care of our children. Further, she explained that concerned citizens could submit their comments in writing. Although submitting input in writing is important and should definitely be done to insure it is part of the record, this statement attempts to invalidate the purpose of public hearings. To insure the public is heard.
I understand that nine times out of ten a committee, board, or commission has generally made up their mind regarding an issue prior to the meeting, and taking public input might not be the most pleasant or enjoyable activity of a politicians life, but there is value to giving people the opportunity to speak. When you truncate, cut off, or limit a person’s speech people feel the process is tainted, or that it is a “done deal.” I do hope that in the future our public officials keep this in mind and allow the public to be heard.