12 Tips to Maximize Support at Public Hearings

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Our friend the late Debra Stein, founder and CEO of GCA Strategies, had many good ideas on influencing the land use approval process. Here are her 12 tips on maximizing community support at public meetings.

— P. Michael Saint,
Chairman and CEO, The Saint Consulting Group

Maximize Community Support at Public Hearings

By Debra Stein

Your local council, commission or board is holding a public hearing tonight to decide the fate of your development proposal.

Opponents are planning to pack the chamber to try to stop the project, but a few supporters have agreed to show up and testify in favor of your plan.

You can simply cross your fingers and hope that everything works out, or you can actively manage the hearing process to maximize the impact your community supporters will have on the decision.

The following are 12 points to follow in order to manage the process and maximize your supporters’ impact:

Find Out the Rules. First of all, you need to know how the commission, council or board conducts its public hearings. Is it a “cattle call” where speakers line up in the aisles for their turn at the microphone? Are witnesses called up in the order in which they signed up? Does the chairperson alternate between advocates and adversaries or are witnesses called in some other particular order? You can’t take advantage of the rules if you don’t know them, so talk with the appropriate staff person or the chairperson well before the hearing so you know what to expect.

Get the Good Seats. The early bird may get the worm, but early-arriving witnesses get front row seats. Stake out good seats so decision makers can see your allies and know that the audience supports you.

Space Out Your Speakers. If you can submit speaker cards or sign up your supporters before the public hearing begins, do it. But, don’t register all your supporters to speak consecutively. You’ll want to reserve some allies for later in the hearing to allow an opportunity for rebuttal and to ensure that hostile messages are interspersed with positive messages about your project.

Put Your Best Speakers First. You want your most compelling, golden-tongued speakers to testify early in the hearing so that later witnesses can be inspired and guided by their presentations. You also want persuasive witnesses to testify early so that reporters who must leave the hearing early to meet their deadlines can pick up quotable quotes from supporters — not opponents.

Provide Talking Points. Citizen advocates need to know what to say before they stand up to testify. Provide a one-page fact sheet or list of bulleted talking points so speakers can emphasize the messages you want decision makers to hear. If you have a lot of speakers, you can produce a variety of message sheets addressing different issues. Union leaders might be provided a fact sheet that focuses on new jobs, for example, while PTA members might be given talking points about new tax revenues that will help boost local schools.

Encourage Supporters to Look Supportive. Project allies and team members can express their enthusiasm even when they are sitting still. Encourage pro-project attendees to smile and nod at appropriate moments. If there is an impressive crowd of supporters in the room, you can ask them to raise their hands or wear buttons to identify themselves as project advocates.

Maintain Contact With Supporters. Hearings often last longer than expected, and supporters may try to slip out of the hearing room without testifying if they think they won’t be noticed. So, be sure to greet your supporters when they show up and remind them that you are counting on them to remain for the entire hearing and to provide testimony. Maintain eye contact with waiting witnesses during the hearing and talk to them during breaks. If necessary, be prepared to intercept bolting witnesses at the door and press them to stay for just a few minutes longer.

Give ’em a Break. Public hearings often start late or drag on for hours, so make it easier for supporters to stick around the hearing room for a long time, if necessary. Have an assistant on hand to feed quarters into parking meters to prevent supporters’ cars from getting tickets. Have extension cords available for allies itching to get back to work or, at least, back online. Provide bottled water or snacks for waiting witnesses. Bring crayons or soft soccer balls for parents who brought their kids with them. You want to make it as easy and as pleasant as possible for supporters to stick around as long as needed throughout the entire public hearing.

Read Testimony Into the Record. Do you have a couple of important supporters who cannot attend the hearing? If so, their brief testimony can be read into the public record during the hearing. Ask the absentee to recruit his or her own spokesperson, or ask an audience member who hasn’t approached the microphone to read out the missing speaker’s comments. If necessary, a team member of the development team can read the prepared statement on behalf of the absentee.

Remember the Press. You can increase the chance of getting pro-project messages into print by urging supporters to talk with the reporters who are covering the public hearing. Identify one or two community spokespersons ahead of time and provide reporters with their names and phone numbers. Encourage your allies to approach the press, introduce themselves and explain why they support your project. If your supporters have submitted written comments or prepared written testimony for the hearing, they also should provide copies to reporters. Remember that more quotes from supporters leave less room in an article for opponents’ quotes.

Try to Speak Last. You want to be the last voice the decision-makers hear before they cast their votes. By speaking last, you can rebut attacks made by earlier speakers and ensure that your own key messages are fresh in the officials’ minds when it comes time to make a decision. Ask for a brief rebuttal period. If necessary, reserve some of your originally allocated speaking time to provide a summary of your views after all citizens have testified. If you cannot secure rebuttal time for yourself, try to hold at least one persuasive supporter in reserve to speak at the end of the hearing to summarize your key messages.

Do Not Delay the Vote. If you see that the decision-makers are ready to vote your way and are getting impatient with too much boring, repetitive testimony, then do not irritate them with unnecessary additional testimony. Even if opponents continue to drone on with unpersuasive complaints, encourage supporters to waive their testimony in the interest of time so you can get to the vote as soon as possible.

Careful coordination of the hearing helps ensure that, when it comes time to vote on your project, decision-makers can appreciate the extent of community support for the land use proposal.

(From Nation’s Building News (NAHB) – March 2007)

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