The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has decided to allow members of the public to speak during meetings held to gather public comments.
A brouhaha developed after an Aug. 31 meeting in Primm, Nev. The point of the meeting was to gather public input on environmental concerns related to a planned solar development. But people, some of whom drove hundreds of miles to express their views, were not allowed to speak and instead were told to write their thoughts on pieces of paper and submit them.
On Tuesday, after public criticism and media calls, BLM leadership decided to return to a process that lets people “listen to what each other has to say,” said David Briery, a spokesman for the agency’s California Desert District, headquartered in Moreno Valley.
“We thought we had a process that worked, but it didn’t,” he said by telephone.
At the Aug. 31 meeting, the BLM sought public input – as required by federal law – to identify topics to cover in environmental reviews of a planned 2,000-acre solar project on public land in northeast San Bernardino County.
But after representatives of Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar gave a presentation about their plans, no one in the audience of about 50 people was allowed a turn at the microphone.
Instead, BLM officials told people they could fill out a form that gave them space for about 75 words of handwritten comments, said Chris Clarke, a Palm Springs resident and member of a group called Solar Done Right. He was among those who attended the meeting, at Primm Valley Golf Club.
Some audience members were flabbergasted and shouted at BLM officials. Dozens of people left frustrated, witnesses said.
“I had some people come from as far as Long Beach, and that’s two tanks of gas,” said David Lamfrom, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “They gave the impression that a decision (on approving the project) was predetermined.”
The meeting spurred official letters of complaint and critical Internet postings on media websites. First Solar responded to the flap by scheduling a meeting for Monday in Barstow to give people “an opportunity to provide input and ask questions about the project in an open forum discussion,” according to a company email. The meeting is at 6 p.m. at the Hampton Inn, 2710 Lenwood Road.
The meeting format that last month irritated members of the public is not new.
In recent years, BLM officials considering solar and wind energy developments and military officials wanting to expand the Marine Corps training center at Twentynine Palms also have avoided giving the public a forum. People could walk from table to table to meet individually with various officials and were allowed to submit written comments. The meetings did not give people a chance to pick up a microphone and address an audience.
Briery, the BLM spokesman, said the Desert District officials adopted that meeting format because they had to get through numerous public meetings, a result of the dozens of wind and solar energy projects proposed on public land.
“We were looking for the most efficient way to get substantive comments from the public, and that’s why we had gone to written comments only,” Briery said.
Rob Mrowka, a former U.S. Forest Service manager who is now a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said some federal officials have been concerned that allowing people to speak at meetings might lead to grandstanding by those who could then encourage a crowd to become unruly.
But Mrowka, who attended the Aug. 31 meeting, faulted the BLM for not even letting people ask questions about the project.
“A large number of participants traveled great distances to the middle of nowhere for the meeting and deserved the right to have questions answered,” he said in an email to BLM officials.
Clarke and other meeting participants said the BLM’s meeting format suppressed public discourse, because no one could hear what other citizens had to say. The situation made it difficult for like-minded people to find each other and for those who may disagree about the project to find common ground, he said.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said citizens should be given a choice of speaking or submitting written comments.
“Sometimes freedom speech can be a little bit messy, but it benefits us in ways that outweigh the cost,” he said.
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