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Even if the primary purpose of the public hearing is to comply with the law and everyone has a set role as if it is a stage tableau, planning boards still should do everything they can to create and maintain a receptive, open environment. One simple way is to get off the pedestal or dais and move down to the people. You may have to find a room more conducive to this environment than the typical hearing setting.
The chair should also state the operating rules and stick by them. Treat everyone equally, making no exceptions for VIPs, loudmouths or noisy claques. Staff or technical experts should not be given an inordinate amount of time to present their information so that citizens have to fit their remarks into the few minutes that are left. Still another action you can take to demystify the process is to make sure there are enough seats for everyone and that handouts are clear and easily understood.
Test the Public Pulse in Other Ways
Despite everything you might do to create a more friendly environment, many people are intimidated by even the name, “public hearing,” and do not feel qualified to make an oral presentation in front of an audience. It is important to provide other ways for citizens to express their opinions. …
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Elaine Cogan, founding principal of the Portland, Oregon planning and communications firm of Cogan Owens Cogan, has consulted for more than 36 years with communities undertaking strategic planning and visioning processes. Cogan has been honored for her work on a variety of citizen involvement projects.