File photo of a crowd at a recent local public hearing

Hollywood, MD – This isn’t really a rant but it could come off looking like snarky criticism. I apologize in advance. What it is, really, are a few things I have been hearing after several years of attending those public meetings known as “hearings.” The use of that word “hearing” means what will be said is for the record and is to be weighed by the decision-makers. It fulfills a legal obligation public officials have to allow the public to orally weigh in on an issue that they (the officials) will decide.

I confess sometimes my eyes hurt because of what my ears hear. I know I shouldn’t roll my eyes but there seems to be an unmistakable pattern. Here are some observations.

It seems at every hearing at least one person will stand up and announce they recently moved to our rural paradise from Washington, DC, Baltimore or some larger, urban subdivision. Pointing to the proposed project—which could be anything from a fancy convenience store, large grocery store, shopping center, apartment building or some other traffic-generator—the speaker will then declare, “I moved here to get away from that!” Never mind that individuals who have lived in the community for a lengthier amount of time stand to benefit in some way from the project, this person’s move to our area is being disregarded.

It seems at every hearing at least one person will step to the microphone and declare, “I’m just finding out about this now!” What the speaker is implying is that someone is trying to pull a fast one. Odd, since we are—stakeholders and decision-makers—having a public hearing to find out how the public feels about this plan. The comment is even more baffling if the hearing was preceded by work sessions, public meetings and was legally advertised weeks in advance. I guess People magazine or whatever news source this individual relies on for information failed to mention it was happening.

At every hearing, it seems, at least one person implies that a “good ole boy, backroom deal” has already decided the issue. Your local elected officials are entitled to conduct some business in executive session. Furthermore, public-private partnerships actually work and it may now be the new normal as far as getting the community the necessary amenities. The thing for citizens to do is judge your elected officials on the end product—was it a worthwhile project? Did a majority of the community benefit? Rest assured, public officials who create boondoggles and white elephants that ultimately blight a community will be looking for another line of work.

It also seems at every public hearing the negative people—if they outweigh the positive people—will have someone ask for all in the room opposed to the proposal to stand or raise their hands, as if a straw poll should hold sway. Yes, it’s true issue proponents sometimes use this tactic too. Same thing with petitions—some people are afraid to not sign a petition that has been thrust into their hands. That doesn’t make it an effective tool in gauging public opinion. Generally, petitions aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.

There is another tactic I have seen often at public hearings. You’ll recognize it if you see it. It involves using children as props and pawns. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often. I think citizens have to keep in mind that it’s the responsibility of grownups to make decisions. These kids didn’t ask to be born and they should not be expected to play a role in furthering a grown person’s agenda.

In summary, attendance at local public hearings is important. But attendees should approach the issue, not with anger, but with points that can clearly make the case for either going forward with or discarding a proposal. Savvy leaders can gauge political will. They are listening. Keep in mind listening to the people and doing what a group of people tell you to do are two different things. Pandering is not leadership, and extreme anger and cynicism aren’t activism. 

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