ACHTUNG: This is not a “fair and balanced” story. It is an editorial by the editor.
The rules of conduct for public hearings need to be changed, or at least tweaked.
Over the last decade, I personally have seen three hearings, which are supposed to better inform the public about an approaching proposal or issue, actually pour gasoline of the fires of anger that often accompany people who appear at meetings as aggrieved parties.
Under current rules, most hearings insist members of the public only make comments and they are limited artificially to just three minutes to speak. Both regulations only worsen hard feelings and cause the public to believe the officials are listening only because they have to. Then comes, later in the meeting, a politician or well-known individual who is given a lot more time than three minutes to make his or her speech.
I’ve seen it happen to often, and in every case the public comes away grumbling and maintaining the peoples’ feelings are ignored and boards and councils are going to do what they’re going to do, regardless of the input they receive.
About a year after the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act was passed by 63 percent of voters statewide, Kalamazoo Township had hearings on how it should be implemented. Many of the constituents who were interested in growing the plants or providing them to patients came to the hearing to ask questions. They were put off by board members who insisted they could only take comments, but could not answer questions.
This is wrong on so many levels, most importantly when the questions about the issue are legitimate.
Several years later, a number of angry citizens showed up for a hearing about the impending firing of Wayland Police Chief Dan Miller. Once again, people were told a hearing is just to take comments, not answer questions. The result was more anger.
There is no question some unruly residents ask leading questions or merely want to advance their own agenda, and it should be the duty of the meeting chairperson to recognize the process and gavel it down. But legitimate questions about the issue and the process should be answered in the name of the public’s right to know.
The most recent example was last Thursday night’s Leighton Township Board meeting. The air park issue wasn’t even on the agenda, but the “public comment” portion of the session produced a lot of comments and questions. Indeed, some of the questions were intended only to put local officials on the hot seat or in embarrassing situations. But the supervisor could put a stop to such activity as soon as it starts.
Communications between the public and local officials would be better served if all public hearings dropped the “comments only” rule and allowed appropriate questions. And time limits should be enforced by the chairman only when things are getting out of hand. Some comments and questions take more time than others and shouldn’t be left to the mercy of a three-minute rule.
When public hearings only allow comments, they risk having them turn into bitch sessions, which too often have the potential to get ugly, with emotions running wild. And it leads to an erosion of trust.
It’s time we put our faith in people we elected rather than arbitrary rules to ensure better communication, and maybe even more satisfactory relations between adversaries.