Why Open Public Meetings Go So Horribly Wrong

The Saint ReportPlanning and Zoning, Referendum/initiative, saintblog, Thought Leadership, Uncategorized

From NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use

Bad newsBy P. Michael Saint,
Chairman and CEO &
Patrick Fox, President, The Saint Consulting Group

A standard approach for convincing the public about the benefits of a development is conducting large open public meetings. The usual purpose of these events is to inform the public, answer people’s questions, put their fears and concerns to rest, and build support for controversial projects. In fact, the field of battle is littered with the proposals of those who think the answer to a site fight is a public meeting.

To proponents, a large community discussion session creates an opportunity for mature, reasoned talk and explanation, a roundtable for public input, a forum to correct misconceptions, a gathering of community-invested citizens. However, modern land use battles are more like street fights than group hugs; project proponents soon discover that there is no “Kumbaya” moment. Rather than creating a medium for reasoned and courteous discussion, a large public event brings together project opponents (who might otherwise not have coalesced) to attack the project, challenge its assumptions, and resolve to organize to defeat it. In the rough-and-tumble of a land use battle, this public relations effort to generate warm feelings actually sows the seeds of defeat. In other words, it focuses opponents’ wrath: one objector feeds off the complaints of another, building to a crescendo of unified hostility. The people who attend public meetings are people with an agenda, not the amorphous “general public.”

Looked at from a political perspective, who is likely to attend a large public meeting? “Concerned citizens” is the obvious answer, and that is true. Why are they concerned? Do people attend public meetings because they have questions, or because they are opposed? Are they open-minded or suspicious? In either case, the large meeting is a crapshoot for the developer; it exposes him and his project to attacks that may sway people who might otherwise not feel strongly about it. Attendees may learn a few things they like about the project, but opponents will make sure they learn plenty that is unfavorable and will convey the impression that they represent majority opinion. After a display of anger and vituperation from opponents, even a potential project supporter is likely to feel intimidated and keep her mouth shut. She may think the project would be good for the town, or at least not be a derogation, but she’s not going to risk being snubbed at church because of it.

The public forum also affords opponents an opportunity to put the developer on the spot: will he promise, here and now, not to file for a property tax abatement? Will he stand by his press releases and require his anchor tenant to close at 11 p.m. each night? Will he guarantee in writing that at least 100 full-time jobs will be created and maintained for five years? Many are the remorseful developers who allowed their PR people to arrange public forums to explain their projects, only to find their own words thrown back in their faces later. And many are the remorseful PR consultants who put their clients at the microphone at large public gatherings only to watch them grow sarcastic, dismissive, intemperate, and profane in front of the whole town.

A damning effect of a large public forum is the self-inflicted wound it can cause for the permitting effort. Public officials who attend the gathering and hear project opponents seethe will no longer be comfortable supporting the project, no matter how enthusiastically they may have responded at first contact. Public officials who do not attend, but read the coverage in the local newspaper or hear about it from people who attended, will be thankful for having had the good fortune not to be present, and they will read the deluge of letters to the editor from project opponents with growing dread. It is usually not necessary for opponents to put too fine a point on citizen influence. Politicians are survivors. They see citizen opposition and get the message immediately: join the winning side.

Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email: msaint@tscg.biz.
Patrick Fox is president of The Saint Consulting Group, email: