Art of Engagement: What is the impact of hearing procedures where proponents speak first followed by opponents?

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Great Falls, Montana
I still have only one response to the question I asked two columns ago: Whether readers’ jurisdictions use a hearing procedure that calls for proponents to speak, followed by opponents, and if so, what impact that has on the public process?
Fortunately, the answer I have is a great one, written by Mark Kulaas, the Director of Land Services for Douglas County, Washington, and a Fellow of AICP. He begins with this:

“My observation is that asking those to speak for, and then those against, a proposal is only effective when there is little if any comment on either side. In almost all other instances, it may create unintended consequences perhaps the most significant is throttling some public comment.”

Mark goes on to share his experience with the dynamics that take place among people who are unfamiliar with the process, professionals who are paid to speak, and “bombers” who are there only to intimidate and disrupt. He also points out that not everyone has a position. Some folks just have questions.
Mark goes on to tell how he influenced a state board on which he serves to require speakers to sign in, to call on people to speak at random, and to forbid rebuttals and cross-examination. He concludes with this:

“Procedure and decorum are certainly essential; yet neither precludes helping constituents be comfortable in addressing their community leaders.”

I would add that nothing in the law prevents a question-and-answer session, managed by staff rather than the decision-makers, before a hearing is officially opened (does anyone out there do this?). I have seen this simple technique, combined with Mark’s advice about requiring speakers to register and be called in the order determined by the presiding officer, transform an unnecessarily contentious and, to be honest, confusing process into a model of decorum.
That these techniques may result in shorter meetings is a fringe benefit. But my question is not just about good technique. Four years ago this month (have I really been writing this column for four years?), I wrote about the importance of choosing the right language, and specifically about the impact that different metaphors can have on how things go.
Here I am asking readers to consider what difference there might be between a public process that begins with the assumption that everyone is either “for” or “against” and one in which the presiding officer begins with a statement about how we are all, from whatever point we begin, here to contribute to a decision that works for everyone. Do you think the outcomes would be different?
Please Write! I want to thank Mark for his excellent contribution to this column. And then to encourage other readers to write, pose a problem or a question, or make a comment. Write Lee Nellis at

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974. Today he is the Deputy Director of the Planning & Community Development Department for the City of Great Falls, MT.

Published in the December 2014/January 2015 Issue

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