Wednesday, October 22, 2008

SEWRPC Review Turns Surreal, Loses Value

SEWRPC's relationship with the public - - made dysfunctional through years of bad outreach to and geographic isolation from Milwaukee and low-income communities - - turned downright surreal Wednesday night in front of federal reviewers in town to carry out a quadrennial evaluation of the regional planning agency.

The review is done by the Federal Highway Administration because it confers on the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission power to approve certain federal highway and transit projects.

Every four years, the evaluators come to town, check out the agency's performance, and ask the public for its opinion as part of the process, too.

Four years ago there were so many complaints about SEWRPC's ineffective connections with low-income and minority communities that the evaluators told SEWRPC it had to improve these relationships.

In 2007, SEWRPC complied by establishing an Environmental Justice Task Force, but things have gotten rocky there because SEWRPC turned aside a task force request to participate in the agency's in-house-only hiring procedure for a new Executive Director, and only last week fought with the task force when it recommended that SEWRPC include an independent socio-economic analysis in all its plans and studies.

I had repeatedly urged readers of this blog to come attend the meeting at the Downtown Transit Center, even though SEWRPC and the evaluators had agreed beforehand to tamp down the public role by eliminating the formal hearing format and substituting question-and-answer listening stations.

A private area where statements could be taken by stenographers would also be provided, but no hearing and especially no microphone.

So all the set pieces were there. Imagine a football field, where a row of tables with maps and handouts and charts on easels were lined up at the 30-yard-line, each staffed with one-to-four local, state and federal transportation and planning officials.

At the other end of the field, say at the other 30-yard-line there were a few dozen chairs in rows facing a screen at the 20-yard-line before which a federal transportation official stood and offered a greeting and short power point presentation.

He then invited the 25 or so citizens seated in the chairs to walk across the room, chat with any of the officials, drop written comments in a box behind one of the tables, or to go to a far corner behind the tables in the end zone and make a statement to a stenographer.

Some citizens questioned this arrangement.

Hey, they said, why can't we make our statements where others can listen, should that be OK with the speakers?

Others agreed. They wanted some interaction. We want to hear the statements, they said. Can't the format be changed?

One federal official stepped forward back at his 30-yard-line and said, no, this was all agreed to in advance. Nervous glances were exchanged among the brace of officials standing at their tables. What to do? What to do?

Shrugs were exchanged. Eyebrows went up.

OK, said someone in authority, addressing the citizens across the field. Why don't all of you walk back to our end zone where the stenographers are and make your statements back there together?

No, said some citizens. Why should we all move? Why doesn't one of the stenographers come over here where we are seated? It's easier for one person to move.

More hemming and hawing. All the suits conferred, and agreed: OK - - We'll have a stenographer come to you and anyone who wants to make a statement where others can hear is free to do so.

Up walked a stenographer, a very patient woman, who set up shop at the citizens' 20-yard-line - - right where the lead-off federal official had stood, and presumably where a microphone would have been located had a hearing been permitted, and the statements began.

Citizens moved forward, listened as speakers talked to the stenographer, politely applauded each one, and so forth. It was a quintessentially orderly, restrained Milwaukee crowd.

This went on for an hour or so.

Except for the absence of a microphone, it was, for all intents and purposes, a public hearing about racial discrimination, transit deficits, lack of affirmative action, lack of comprehensive planning and other critiques of SEWRPC's standard methods and practices.

But here is the strangest thing about this de facto hearing:

Except for a stray minute here and there when an official wandered over to listen to a few public words amidst a statement, none of the officials back at their tables could hear the statements because there was no amplification.

Most of the officials spent most of their time glued to their listening station, even if no one was there asking a question. Often there were little knots of officials chatting at the tables while the public speaking was going on in conversational tones before the stenographer.

It looked like the old Junior High School dance: boys on once side of the hall, girls on the other, and little sustained interaction except an occasional foray.

So the evaluators came to town to review SEWRPC's performance - - and missed the public input portion.

The evaluators will meet with SEWRPC behind closed doors Thursday - - no reporters or citizens allowed, per federal transportation policy, an official told me - - in what they call the "site visit" portion of the review.

Paperwork will be reviewed and discussions will be held.

Then the evaluators will read the public comments and transcribed remarks from the Wednesday night meeting, and ask for SEWRPC's side of things.

"I'll read every one," one official assured me.

A report will be issued in 60 days, federal officials told the assembled.

But had the evaluators and SEWRPC not monkeyed around with the tried-and-true hearing format, everyone present could have heard the public comments Wednesday night and already have begun to think about what the public came out to say.

And you wonder why people in the region think that SEWRPC doesn't listen?

[Note: Written comments may also be submitted no later than November 10, 2008, by mail, fax, or E-mail to:

Planning Certification Review
Federal Highway Administration
525 Junction Rd, Suite 8000
Madison, WI 53717
Fax: 608-829-7526

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