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If the only public engagement that any commission does is a half-hour question-and-answer session on the tail end of an hour-long panel discussion, it’s giving lip service to the idea of public participation.
I don’t think it’s any news to anyone that our usual methods for public engagement often fail to do what we actually need: engage our residents — who are our true local experts — in the real search for solutions to complex and messy problems (note that we’re talking about planning-type settings, not necessarily formal hearings here).
Planners sometimes hesitate about embarking on the kind of in-depth engagement strategies I’ll be discussing in this and future columns out of concern about disruptive members of the public. We’ve all encountered situations when trying to develop a plan or policy where at least a small number of people come with very specific axe to grind — a particular topic or point of view that might be off track from the stated purpose of the meeting. These folks are often not interested in being part of a conversation, their goal is to push their agenda by any means necessary.
I have written elsewhere about specific methods for managing audience participation in an environment where axe-grinders are waiting for their chance — and I maintain that it’s our responsibility as leaders to manage the situation. Allowing a small group with an agenda to dominate a public meeting is like letting a couple of badly-behaved students poison the learning environment for everyone else in the classroom. It’s not fair to anyone.
Every meeting has its own rules and procedures, but it’s our responsibility to make sure that the situation is fair to everyone, not just to the five people who lack the extremely common public fear of speaking into a microphone.
In fact, the presence and prevalence of axe-grinders should indicate to us that our communities hold a massive pent-up demand for real, meaningful participation.