Thursday, October 23, 2008

Matters from the Public - Can your voice be heard?

Yesterday - October 22, 2008 - I attended two transportation related meetings in Charlottesville. One as a consulting party in the Route 250 Bypass Interchange at McIntire Road Section 106 (historic preservation issues) and the other as a member of the public at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board meeting. The message sent loudly and clearly at both meetings is that acquiring and considering input from the public is not a really much of a priority in local transportation planning.

At the Section 106 consulting parties meeting, Charlottesville's project consultants (RK&K) indicated clearly that their meeting agenda was final and that continuing discussion of issues not resolved in previous meetings to the satisfaction of consulting parties (all citizen representatives of local interest groups) would not be discussed. In fact, the consultant chairing the meeting indicated that if the citizen consulting parties wouldn't follow the agenda and insisted on continuing previous discussions, we would not have any more opportunities to participate in the (federally required) Section 106 review process. Given that the consulting parties were appointed to the committee by the Federal Highway Administration, the ability of the city's consultants to end our consulting role may be overstated - but I question seriously if input from the public is being taken seriously. This is my first opportunity to participate in a Section 106 review of possible effects of a project on historical resources listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. But, I don't feel that the process is being carried out in compliance with the federal guidelines. Clearly this process should have occurred much earlier in the project development process (as stated explicitly in federal regulations), and much of the public's concerns stem from alternatives that could limit effects on historic properties having been eliminated from consideration before the public (through the Section 106 process) were able to provide input on historic preservation. This is a case of too little pubic access to the process way too late in the process.

At the MPO meeting, members of the policy board defended their unilateral decision to schedule future public hearings earlier in the day than has been the tradition (public hearings have started at or later than 5:00 pm for many years). This action was brought up, discussed and voted on by the policy board at their September meeting without ever notifying the public of the possible change or providing the public an opportunity to comment in any meaningful way as to how this change will impact the public's ability to participate in these public hearings. The defense of this action given in the September 17, 2008 draft minutes is that "the 2007 Public Participation Policy only requires that public hearings be 'accessible and convenient,' so 5:00 p.m. is not a required time."

I presented to the MPO policy board that for many members of the public who have regular daily work-hours, holding a public hearing shortly after 4:00 pm is not even possible (let along accessible or convenient) while such a hearing at or after 5:00 may be possible to attend even if somewhat inconvenient. My recommendation to the policy board that the public be invited to weigh in on how this schedule change would impact their ability to comment was not agreed to by the MPO policy board.

I have long been an advocate for proactive public involvement where decisions directly impact the public and am very sensitive to actions that clearly limit opportunities for the public to participate in a meaningful way. Yes, as pointed out by MPO staff, the public can telephone, email, or mail comments on issues prior to the public hearing, but there is no guarantee that they will have access to all of the relevant material for the issue at hand (often supplemental material is distributed at the meeting) and they will not be able to hear the introduction of the matter by staff and others clarifying elements of the matter prior to the public hearing. The action taken by the MPO policy board will limit the ability of members of the public to participate. The change is apparently more about convenience to the voting members of the policy board (their desire to end a meeting earlier than 5:00 pm when few items are on an agenda when a public hearing is scheduled) than to provide interested members of the public an opportunity to participate in local transportation decision making.

So, what I got from my experiences on October 22 is that the public may participate, but not as comprehensively as is the intent or tradition, and I am not convinced that anyone is really listening.

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