Barring people from speaking is a bizarre approach to soliciting public comment. Federal officials should let audience members speak at meetings that agencies hold to seek public input on projects. Procedural efficiency should not trump citizen participation in government decisions.
The Bureau of Land Management last week wisely altered its public meeting format. Attendees will now be able to address the audience and officials at meetings devoted to proposals for solar power, wind energy and other projects on public land. Previously, people could attend the meetings, but could only comment by writing their opinions on a form that had space for about 75 words.
The change in policy happened after a frustrated outcry from people who went to two meetings last month on renewable energy projects. The Aug. 31 meeting in Primm, Nev., was typical: The developer of a proposed 2,000-acre solar plant made a presentation.
But members of the audience, some of whom came from hundreds of miles away, had to submit written comments. The agency used the same approach at an Aug. 25 meeting in Ocotillo over a proposed 12,500-acre wind farm – causing similar audience irritation.
That “written comments only” policy was not new, but hardly suited a process that governs development decisions on public land. The property belongs to taxpayers, who have a direct interest in the use of that land – and who should face no barriers to contributing opinions on the subject.
And no public agency should want to suggest that its planning process is biased toward developers. Letting the developer speak, but muzzling audience members, leaves the perception that projects receive unfair preference. Not surprisingly, some people at the recent meetings saw the policy as an attempt to suppress other viewpoints.
Requiring written submissions may meet the legal requirement to gather public comment, but it frustrates people who want to ask questions or address public officials directly. Besides, letting audience members speak at the microphone promotes an immediate exchange of views and information, which can help all involved see the central issues clearly.
BLM officials say the “no speaking” policy was an efficiency measure, as the agency has to process dozens of proposals for solar and wind projects on government lands. And apparently some federal officials worry that letting the audience comment would lead to grandstanding or unruly behavior.
Yet most public agencies routinely allow people to speak at meetings without creating chaos. And efficiency should not come at the price of dissuading public participation.
Yes, public debate can be time-consuming, noisy and sometimes heated. But an approach that obstructs citizen comment on government issues serves no legitimate public goal.
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