10. Allocate Time to Foster Useful Input
One challenge facing planning commissions when dealing with controversial applications is how to allow the applicant and members of the public adequate time to provide their presentations, comments, and questions -- and, at the same time, avoid having hearings drag on late into the night.
There is also the need to get constructive input in a way that is helpful to the commission in reaching its decision. While many planning commissions set specific time limits for comments by members of the public, there may be better approaches, especially for complex projects. This includes opportunities for input and discussion in advance of the hearing (see also Tips 1-3)
The late Wayne Lemmon offered an interesting option:
"In the typical public hearing format, you get a long list of pro and con speakers that line up for hours of very repetitive three-minute statements. What I have seen work effectively is this: if there are organized or even just semi-organized groups (citizens for the plan / citizens against the plan), invite their leaders to make organized presentations of, say, 15 minutes each, limiting those invitations to just the primary factions that can be identified. You'll get truly articulate and well-marshaled arguments for and against. Moreover, the speakers (particularly the opponents) finally get a feeling that they've had a chance to lay out all their arguments. You still get to do a general hearing, but after the formal presentation session, the speaker list is much shorter."
- Opinion of the West Virginia Ethics Committee on Open Governmental Meetings in response to question from a Member of the Berkeley County Planning Commission ... on the propriety of time limits for public comments during a routine public comment period ...
- The 2012 Texas Open Meetings Act Made Easy (Office of the Attorney General of Texas; pdf). Noting on p. 15 that the right of the public to speak "exists only if a specific state law requires a public hearing on an item or ... requires that public comment be allowed on an issue. If a local entity allows members of the public to speak on an item at a meeting, the governing body may adopt reasonable rules regulating the number of speakers on a particular subject and the length of time allowed for each presentation. ... Arguably, such rules could include a requirement that a group select one of its members as a spokesperson. However, the body should not discriminate between one group and another on a particular issue."
- Note: many states have open meeting / sunshine law manuals that address public comment requirements and other aspects of public meetings and hearings. They are often prepared by the Attorney General or Secretary of State's office. We recommend that you double-check your own state's requirements for guidance.
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