Monday, August 14, 2017

'Open house' format can smother golf course debate

[Updated from 8/13/17] A word of warning about Thursday evening's open house - - note new location - - to which state officials are inviting the public to 'learn about' a proposal to redo the master plan for Kohler Andrae State Park and enable the construction of a privately-owned high-end golf course partially inside the park and on 247 adjoining, privately-owned acres.

"Open house."

Sounds great. Neighborly. Real informal. 'Stop by for cheese and crackers and a Leinie's or a glass of Cabernet, and let's just talk...'

I have been to many such public policy open house presentations, and they can put the sponsoring authorities in command of the room by spreading out poster boards and maps and staff members to answer the public's questions, and they direct people to disparate public comment stations where court reporters can take down or accept written comments - - but open houses do not provide an opportunity for people to address concerns or voice questions to the entire room so that everyone can hear the same answers and to spark follow-up inquiries.

And in the open house announcement I linked to, above, I see a lot of language that puts the public in a passive position vis-a-vis the powers that be:

The public will have an opportunity at an upcoming open house to learn about the scope and objectives of the proposed master plan amendment for Kohler-Andrae State Park related to a golf course proposed for property adjacent to the park. The public will also have an opportunity to identify pertinent issues to be evaluated in the planning amendment process.
Passive especially since the DNR has assigned staff to work closely with the developer for a couple of years to address pertinent issues behind closed doors.

I have actually posted about a couple of such events, and I'll add the links below, but unless the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board are going to allow amplified questions and answers, this is going to be a dog-and-pony show designed to let the state say they were transparent when the exact opposite is the intention.

*  In 2004, an every-four-years public hearing into federal reauthorization of the regional planning commission's highway planning and financing approval powers turned into a long and very uncomfortable night for both the local planners and their visiting federal reviewers.

Four years ago, many groups and individuals streamed into the Downtown Transit Center to blast SEWRPC for ineffective outreach and a host of other shortcomings.
The hearing in 2000 was sparsely attended; the 2004 outpouring, triggered by SEWRPC's no-transit/highway-only expansion plan was the catalyst, but also tapped into a deepening reservoir of resentment over the agency's suburban biases and its then-recent move to the relatively less accessible Pewaukee industrial park where it had purchased a headquarters building from one of its frequent contractors, Ruekert-Mielke.
History here.
So when the 2008 reauthorization rolled around, the authorities switched to the quieter, fragmented open house format:
The desired effect: diffuse public sentiment, sap the room of its energy, and make it easier for the reviewers to reauthorize SEWRPC. 
The format will help enable and accelerate SEWRPC's focus on exurban and suburban planning at the expense of dismissed urban issues and populations.
*  In 2009, WisDOT was moving forward with its half-finished, under-funded and over-engineered Zoo Interchange expansion and reconstruction project.

Long-time highway expansion foe Jeff Gonyo ran into several obstacles, including intentional debate-stifling procedures in an open house format at which he tried to make his organization's objections know.

He wrote a long account of it at the time, which I posted, and in documenting all the various methods used by the state to control discussion and information dissemination from the opponents' perspectives, Gonyo wrote:

In my 10 years of fighting the WisDOT to stop unnecessary, fiscally-irresponsible and environmentally-damaging road expansion projects in our state, I have never seen such a public display of undemocratic, oppressive, anti-citizen behavior on the part of a government agency using people's tax dollars to deter citizen participation from the very same people paying those taxes. 
One of the sign boards, we wanted to display yesterday contained the following heading, "Federal Highway Administration Admits "Open House" Public Hearing Format Precludes Debate on a Project's Merits!" 
On that sign board was a copy of a document which I found on the Federal Highway Administration's website entitled, "Public Involvement Techniques for Transportation Decision-Making: Open Forum Hearings/Open Houses" which listed one of "drawbacks" of these types of public hearings as EXACTLY THAT (see pages 6 thru 7 of this attached FHWA document which I printed off their website just a few hours before yesterday's WisDOT public hearing). 
So let's understand that unless the Wisconsin DNR and its oversight body the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board conduct open houses differently than do WisDOT, or SEWRPC or the Federal Highway Administration - - and this account of a recent DNR open house suggests it's the same set-piece approach - - 
Rather than following a structured meeting format, poster board displays were set up around the room, where attendees could pick up basic information about a certain topic — say, ATV riding or hunting — then engage in a conversation with a DNR rep.
- - do not expect anything resembling a public hearing, or the opportunity to make comments that can be heard by all attendees at the same time as they wander around a room, their attention fragmented, their focus dissolved.

One more thing.

At that 2008 SEWRPC/Federal reauthorization open house, people got fed up with the procedures being laid down and refused to accept them. After some hemming and hawing by the people in charge, people were allowed to address their questions and comments to the entire room. 

Food for thought, as I noted in a later post:
After SEWRPC got lambasted repeatedly at its 2004 re-certification hearing, the 2008 re-certification public session was intentionally anesthetized into a more tepid 'open house' format - - but citizens who wanted their comments heard by the entire assemblage and not just a stenographer in cubby holes forced the organizers as the meeting began to open up the process.
I was there, as was the aforementioned Jeff Gonyo.

The takeaway: you don't have to take it.


Anonymous said...

ATC (American Transmission Company) does the same thing with their "public Information" sessions. painful to watch those goons smile and drivel on about how important they and the service they provide to long standing farmers and land owners facing easements and eminent domain loss to a private company that will take their land to build high voltage power lines that only serve profits of transmission/utility companies all while raising the electrical rates on the very same citizens. The WI PSC will rubber stamp yet another HVTL to enrich anonymous shareholders who have zero stake in life in this state. For-profits should have to pay for that which they are taking at a minimum because they are taking way more than than land from these people, but they take it for pennies on the dollar.

Betsey said...

AND the information provided and the questions asked and answered at an 'Open House' are not part of any public record. So that 'officials' can say anything to anyone and later deny having said it, or claim that it was misinterpreted or improperly remembered. ANYTHING public officials say to the public should be a matter of record.