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How Not to Run a Meeting

New Jersey is in the process of creating a Highlands preservation area in the northern part of the state, modeled on the Pinelands in the south. The plan has, unsurprisingly, run into opposition from residents who charge that it undermines their property rights. This isn't a group that I have the most sympathy for. But I can't approve of the joke of a public involvement process that seems to be offered:

The public comment rules are strict: each person is allotted three minutes and council members usually decline to respond.

"This bill is long, the DEP rules are 250 pages, and we're supposed to respond in three minutes? I don't think so," said Deborah Post after being cut off at the council's Dec. 1 meeting. Post, who owns 68 acres in Chester Township in the preservation area, is also part of the citizens' group.

The public comments rules exist so meetings can be kept to a reasonable length, Chairman John Weingart said. The lack of response may be unsatisfying to the residents, but council members say they are listening.

As is too often the case in environmental planning, the planners approach the community in an extremely top-down fashion. Public input is carefully circumscribed -- comment only at this time, in this fashion -- to suit the convenience, and the need for efficiency, of the planners. The planners offer assurances that they are listening. But those assurances are empty without any basis of trust. The planners feel no obligation to engage with the concerns of residents, or to show that they understand those concerns. At best, the public hearings satisfy the letter of the requirement that public input be allowed -- thus allowing the planners to tell themselves they're not tyrants -- and enable a bit of venting on the part of unhappy residents. At worst, such a constricted public participation process serves to make sure that laypeople know their place. And it shows that the planners don't think (and they may well be right) there's anything that residents can do to resist the plan, and thus there's no need for them to win over residents, except perhaps in a very didactic way.


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