The meetings tend to be formal. But people’s participation tends to be, well, a little unmeasured, Fruchtman told me. “Hysteria,” he said. “There’s often a sense of hysteria at these meetings that is not reflected in what you read in the press.” He recalled the time that a person described his fight to prevent the construction of a navigation center for homeless services as a kind of personal “Little Bighorn.” Or the time another person objected to the conversion of a parking lot on the grounds that it would increase traffic. Such rhetoric is “intellectual malpractice,” Fruchtman added. And the intemperate rants of the people who show up matter, as city officials hear such impassioned claims mostly from a privileged class trying to keep things as they are.
Having studied my share of public meetings, this description rings true. This does not mean every public comment rises to this level but residents and neighbors can regularly attempt to make their point strongly.
As this article notes, public commenters have little incentive not to state their case forcefully. They are living in the area. They think their property is at risk. Local officials serve at their behest (whether elected directly by residents or not). Who is going to call them out on their strong emotions or statements?
Now this would make for an interesting record: cataloging the ways that residents oppose development proposals. Based on what I have seen, I could imagine these themes would come up regularly: traffic, light, noise, too much density, a difference in character with the existing neighborhood would come up regularly, and a threat to property values. Additionally, how do residents present these concerns, with what tone, and with what public displays?
Those procedures could deal with the rights of participants to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence during a public hearing.
“It really boils down to efficiency,” said Annie Thompson, the governor’s spokeswoman. “The governor believes in getting the people’s business done in a manner that’s open and transparent but also in a manner that’s efficient. This bill will help (local) governments do that.”
State Rep. Darlene Senger of Naperville said she proposed the legislation in response to the marathon public hearings that happened when Navistar submitted plans to move its headquarters to Lisle…
“This bill allows municipalities that are interested in severely restricting who can participate in the process — under the guise of efficiency — to institute undemocratic and unfair rules,” said Terry Pastika, the center’s executive director. “When you think about the anti-democratic rules it could justify, it’s a big problem.”
I can see both sides. On one hand, a public hearing can go on for hours if a large or vociferous enough crowd wants to talk. These meetings can drag into the wee hours of the morning, making it difficult for public officials in smaller communities who work part-time as public servants. Additionally, one could argue that at some point there may be diminishing returns: jut how much does a group have to say to convince public officials that they don’t like a proposal? On the other hand, there are few official settings where citizens can interact with public officials. Public hearings allow citizens to express their opinions and make their voice heard. Citizens can feel that if they make a convincing or large enough argument, they can sway the outcome.
I would guess that this new law will have this effect: communities and citizens will now have spend some time figuring out what are appropriate rules where both sides feel like they can do what they want to do.