My Turn: Let's bring back public hearings

Posted: Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Public hearings, and your right to tell the government what you think, are becoming things of the past in Juneau. So is your right to hear what other citizens think.

The U.S. Forest Service held an "open house" supposedly to inform the community about the proposed Kensington mine and allow the public to express their thoughts about the project's draft supplemental environmental impact statement.

While attending, many people were stunned to learn that nothing they said at the open house would be recorded or officially acknowledged in any way. The acting regional director of the Forest Service told a group of us that the only way to get our thoughts into the official record is to put them in writing. This new policy and the "open house" format that a growing number of government agencies are using to replace public hearings, seriously damage the public's ability to influence decisions.

Denying people the right to simply tell the Forest Service what they think automatically excludes many from participating. Most people can verbalize in a few moments, what may take hours to express in written form. Preparation of effective written comments requires, patience, skill, and more time than most people can spare.

Furthermore, the one-on-one nature of open houses denies participants the advantage of hearing the thoughts of other participants ... an important feature of public hearings that can stimulate additional analytical thinking. And the format has other flaws: it's not uncommon to get sent from one official to another in the quest for an answer. (It's like being stuck in a phone maze except you have to walk around a lot.) Or ask five officials the same question; you may get five different answers. Plus, when an "expert" has to answer the same question many times during a several hour gathering, the answer is bound to vary. Participants can get conflicting and sometimes incorrect information without being aware of it.

At a public hearing, if that happens, there is likely someone standing by to set things straight. And there is a room full of witnesses to hold the speaker accountable. In addition, everyone hears the same information at the same time. At a well run public hearing, the meeting is recorded and later transcribed. In the past, this written account was summarized and placed in the environmental impact statement along with the agency's response to the issues raised. This reassured participants that their comments were heard and whether or not they were responded to appropriately. It also provided a record for planning and decision making, and for legal and historical purposes. The legal aspect is particularly important because a litigant often needs to refer to the documentation to prove his or her case.

The concept of an open house seems good at first glance. They are relaxed ... homey. They allow participants to stroll at their leisure and focus on specific areas of interest. They are a great way to distribute some information. But because they lack opportunity to get oral comments into the public record and because of the shortcomings previously expressed, they should not be the only meeting held.

The Forest Service and all other government agencies should continue to take oral comments and they should stick to the tried and true method of public hearings. They should use open house only to augment their efforts.

Finally, because of the inadequacies mentioned above, the Forest Service should extend the comment deadline for the Kensington draft supplemental environmental impact statement and hold a proper public hearing.

• Skip Gray is a founding member of Friends of Berners Bay, a citizen group that has worked to protect the wild land character of Berners Bay since 1985.

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