Managing Public Testimony

Managing Public Testimony

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

Your town’s planning and zoning commission makes legislative and administrative decisions. Underpinning these decisions is the receipt of testimony from applicants, municipal staff and agencies, professional experts, lawyers, and members of the public.

A planning and zoning commission makes good decisions when it takes into account all of the testimony it receives, follows its review process, and abides by its zoning regulations. People want to be heard on issues of interest to them. They also want to be provided opportunities to be heard. A wise planning and zoning commission understands all of this and acts accordingly.

Managing public testimony is not straightforward. It is not meant to be easy. People come to public meetings, especially on controversial topics, with facts, opinions, concerns, ideas, questions, and passions. Some people have a lot to say. Some have little to say. Some are present to listen, but perhaps not ready to speak right away.

As Chair of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission, I am mindful of a set of common sense rules each time I am at a meeting. Let me share them with you.

• Start a meeting on time once a quorum is reached. Each meeting has a limited amount of time, after which either the time runs too late in the evening or runs too long, either way tiring everyone. Tired people do not make good decisions. A timely start of a meeting sets the stage for a productive use of time.

• Facilitate the work of the meeting: gather as many applicable facts as possible, and then discuss them to find a consensus decision. It is a balancing act. It requires letting a meeting continue so that discussion of all sides and a full vetting of the issue can be conducted. It requires ending debate once all information has been obtained and all people who wish to speak have been heard. This does not mean running a meeting in a short time. Expediency may equal efficiency when looking at the clock, but it usually does not mean productivity. Informed decision-making is the goal, which requires time to do properly.

• Provide people their opportunities to be heard. If someone took the time to come to a meeting, then they are motivated by an agenda item. Before a commission meeting starts, I try to take the time to ask members of the public why they are present, so I have an idea not just how many people may want to speak on a specific item, but also who may wish to speak. This helps prepare for the flow of the meeting. This does not mean that every member of the public present at a meeting wants to speak. Rather, they have the opportunity to speak.

• Set time limits as to how long any one person can speak. If a single person is allowed to speak excessively long, then fairness is lost to others who wish to be heard because time may run out at a meeting. The more people who wish to speak on an item, then the more important it is to equalize the allotted time for everyone. Usually, a good rule of thumb is to allow 3-5 minutes per speaker. Applicants or their representatives are allowed more time to speak on their own applications, and to add to or rebut any testimony heard about their applications. Latitude can be given to how long people can speak, if by doing so furthers the meeting’s goal: to gather all of the facts to make an informed decision. • Set limits as to how many times one person can talk. If a single person is allowed to talk multiple times, then fairness is again lost to others. Parliamentary procedure is used to remind people that others will be recognized to speak if they have not yet spoken for the first time, after which, people who have spoken already can then be recognized to speak. Furthermore, people may be called “out of order” if they are speaking again and again without providing new information. One exception to this procedure is when an individual is asked a question, in which case they are recognized for the purpose only to answer the question.

• Focus the discussion on the merits of the matter at hand, be it a proposed regulation change or a land use application. People supportive of or opposed to a specific item or issue often times have emotions involved. We are all humans, so this is understandable. Add to the mix different types of personalities among the people at the meeting. The work of a planning and zoning commission is objective and based upon facts. Personal attacks on individuals or groups cannot be tolerated. Personality conflicts cannot be allowed to run rampant. Respect for people is expected. If a meeting becomes dysfunctional, then members of the public who came to speak on a topic may feel unsafe to speak, and the work of the meeting suffers.

• Commission meetings are not rallies. There is no cheering or booing. To do otherwise takes away from the objectivity needed for the Commission to do its work. • Focus the discussion on the specifics of the matter at hand. People may wish to generalize their discussions beyond the individual topic or even go beyond the commission’s scope of authority. Redirecting discussion back to the specifics guides everyone to the path needed to make informed, legal decisions.

• Help applicants, commissioners, and members of the public understand the process. One of the common characteristics of a dysfunctional meeting is when a lack of understanding of a meeting’s process sows confusion. Time is wasted that could have otherwise been spent tackling the item to be discussed and decided upon.

• Remember that a public agency runs its own meetings. All comments and questions are to be directed to the Commission. Sidebar discussions, especially multiple conversations among people at the same time, do not let everyone hear what is going on.

• Thank people for attending and for speaking. Government agencies exist to serve individuals and the community. They serve best when the public is involved. If someone takes the time to come to Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, then I thank them for doing so.

Managing public testimony at a planning and zoning commission meeting requires maintaining order throughout the meeting. It requires taking pauses during the course of a meeting to assess and re-assess what the commission is hearing and receiving, as well as the manner in which this is all happening. It necessitates following established processes and parliamentary procedures. These things help balance the different and differing interests within your community. After all, good decisions are not made by rushing into or through them. Good decisions are made by listening to people, asking questions, getting answers, reviewing the facts, and striving for consensus.

Dr. Jeffrey A. Gordon is Chairman of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission. This article does not reflect any official statement of the Commission. Check out www.JeffreyGordon.com.


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