Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ll receive a notice in your mail from your city or county or township. It will tell you that someone nearby is asking for approval to do something with their home or land. And that you are invited to attend a public hearing – probably in the evening – or send in written comments.

Welcome to government “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

We spend a fair amount of money on these notices – the cost of sending out the letters via US mail and paying newspapers to print public notices. Is it an effective way to involve the public? Is there a better way? Is there a less costly way?

Even if everyone who cared was notified, would they really feel like they had a meaningful opportunity to provide input and understand the issues when their one chance to participate is a public meeting less than two weeks later? At a time when they would rather be playing with the kids or watching their favorite TV show? Or at a time when they need to be at work earning money to pay the bills?

What would you do to make sure that people were adequately notified of what is going on? How would you ensure that they had a chance to actually raise issues that are relevant to the decision before a decision was effectively made?

Here are a few ideas. Feel free to post your own.

  • Use the web. Post as much information as you can about a zoning or land use application (those that currently require public hearings) on the web as soon as it is received by the community. Show maps, drawings, aerial photos, ground photos of the property, application forms, staff comments – as much as you can. Provide a link where people can e-mail in their comments – or post their comments directly on the site so others can see them. Let people do their homework before they show up at a meeting to give their comments. If they can’t attend the meeting, let them see as much as you can about what factors are going into the decision and let them send in their comments.
  • Allow interested citizens and interest groups to sign up on a mailing list that will notify them by mail of applications whether they live nearby or not. Charge a small fee to cover the cost of postage. Better yet, let them sign up their e-mail address so that they receive e-mail notices of every application they might have an interest in.
  • Establish several “community bulletin boards” throughout the community at places people frequently stop – grocery stores, gas stations, coffee shops, the post office, schools, the library, etc... Post notices of meetings and applications at these locations rather than just in a newspaper (or instead of the newspaper???). Make sure the “bulletin board” is something well-built and that is official (don’t just hand out flyers wherever – make it an official location for notices of meetings). Make sure the information on the notifications allows people to quickly identify the location of the affected property and what is being proposed.
  • Develop educational materials that instruct citizens on what types of comments can best influence a decision by the community. Help them to understand that comments based mostly on fact rather than emotion are more likely to sway decision-makers (i.e. “The road next to that subdivision is designed for X vehicles per day and this subdivision will make it go over that limit” vs. “That subdivision will make traffic a nightmare”).
  • Hold public meetings so that applicants and staff clearly explain the application and citizens are able to see what issues are up for discussion and which are not.
  • Allow for a little bit of interaction between citizens, applicants and the decision-makers. Many public hearings allow the public to comment at the beginning, and then shut them out for the rest of the meeting. Don’t be afraid to give the public and the applicant a couple chances to react to what has been said during the meeting and which they might not have known at the beginning of the meeting. It doesn’t mean the meeting has to get out of control – just be organized about it.