The public hearing from hell – a rant

Trigger warning – grouchiness ahead!

Last week I saw a notice about a public hearing on the development of a “plan” to manage a particularly serious disease in my state. Without worrying about which disease or even which state I’m talking about, I want to describe what was wrong with today’s public hearing.

A ninety-minute meeting to garner 18 minutes of public input is BAD.

The schedule of the event was completely backwards. If you want to hear from the public, then members of the public need to be treated like honored guests, and above all, their time must not be wasted. Repeat – the public’s time must not be wasted. So… don’t talk at me!

The citizen willing to speak at a public hearing is rare. Rare and fragile. I know this from personal experience on both sides of the podium. Most people would rather go to the dentist, say, than testify in public, even before a group that works hard to solicit their input. As a public health official, I once recruited a man with a contaminated well to go with me to the state capital (two hours away) to discuss water pollution. We drove together. But he could not, would not, did not, speak into a microphone in front of a room full of strangers.

I couldn’t blame him. A “hearing” sounds judicial. The physical setup was unintentionally confrontational – experts in business attire peering down at the speaker. “Insiders” tolerating the humble offerings of “outsiders”.

This afternoon, “the public” was sternly warned that each of us would be limited to three minutes, and only one person from an organization might speak, though all were encouraged to submit comments in writing.

The hearing was announced for 2:30 pm, and that is when I arrived. I signed in and was told I was the fourth person to register to speak. Fine.

Then I was told the hearing would start at three, to allow for latecomers. What?! This is not a notoriously unpunctual part of the world. This is a college. We do things more or less on time. The +/- is about five minutes. (Okay, nothing actually starts early, but neither is anything very late.) So there went half an hour of my precious time. I could have stayed where I was, at my desk.

Then the hearing convened. We were welcomed. A brief video was shown. Then we heard from an expert. She told us about the disease in question. She gave statistics and introduced some vocabulary. She said she wanted us to be in the “right frame of mind”. Why did she assume anything AT ALL about my “frame of mind”, much less that it needed correction?

Then we heard from six members of the state commission on said disease. They were mercifully brief, but there went another fifteen minutes.

The amount of background provided seemed to imply that the commission figured we were relatively ignorant.

By the time the first member of the public spoke, 75 minutes had elapsed from the announced starting time. The panel chose to respond to EACH SPEAKER. A judgement call. I don’t think it was a good decision in this case. A little clarification does no harm, but “response” can easily drift into “correction”, telling the speaker he or she didn’t get it right. That’s not the point. The commission said they had come to LISTEN, and that’s what they should have done. If an error or misperception was really important, they would easily be able to contact the speaker about it later on.

Around 4 pm, I rose and spoke. I was asked one quick question. Wanting to leave but also wanting to show respect for the other speakers, I sat back down.

There were only two more speakers for a total of six. SIX! The hearing need not have lasted more than half an hour. Each guest could have been allowed five minutes! Presentations by experts and commission members could have been offered afterwards for those who wished to stay. Or, better yet, the most interested and motivated participants (on both sides of the process) could have sat down together for a REAL CONVERSATION. We could have gone to the coffee shop together.

This well intended commission will be holding more meetings at other locations. I hope they change their format. Getting public input is difficult, but worthwhile.


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