The Times Are A’Changin’: Planning Board Tries Live Email Queries

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By Christopher Hopkins, The Saint Consulting Group The Westport, CT Planning and Zoning Commission is expanding into the digital age. Residents have been able to watch public hearings at home through local access cable but until recently that has been it, they would be a silent observer. Approved at the April 10th P&Z Meeting, a trial period through June has begun allowing residents to email questions and comments into the public hearing in real time. There are some restriction on the process including, questions will be limited to 25 words and must address the application that is currently being discussed, each email must have the name and address of the Westport resident asking the question and only three email questions will be allowed for each public hearing. While this could increase participation in a public hearing it ultimately could drive down live attendance. Staying home, having the television on in the background while you do other things, watching it only for the short time when your issue comes up and now having the ability to participate as well; it sure beats sitting in a crowded room for hours waiting for your one issue to come up. There are possible downsides that will need to be measured. Can an organized group manipulate emails, especially if the number allowed is eventually expanded? Will this lead to less attendance at public hearings, with less people actively attending the hearing and becoming less involved in the process? Will public hearings eventually be a planning and zoning board sitting in an empty room with the only communication coming through an email service?  These issues will have to be measured as part of the trial period and before this new turn is expanded to other municipalities throughout the country.  Click here to read the Westport News account or read the full account below. Christopher Hopkins is senior vice president for business development for The Saint Consulting group, email hopkins@tscg.biz.  http://www.westport-news.com/news/article/P-Z-testing-email-questions-at-public-hearings-5462898.php P&Z testing email questions at public hearings Published 11:12 am, Thursday, May 8, 2014             Westport: The Planning & Zoning Commission has launched a trial period for accepting questions from residents via email during its public hearings. The commission agreed to adopt the policy at its April 10 meeting. The trial period began at the commission’s meeting last week and runs through June. After the trial, the P&Z will evaluate how to proceed with email questions during meetings in the future, Chairman Chip Stephens said in a news release. Previously, the only way to ask questions about items discussed during a public hearing was to attend in person at Town Hall during the commission meetings. Recognizing the difficulties this might pose for some, the commission has decided to test the effectiveness of taking emails during the hearings, Stephens said. “The purpose of this effort is to provide a mechanism to allow those who are not physically able to attend public hearings in Town Hall, but are watching either on public-access television or on the Internet, the convenience of sending a question via email,” Stephens said. “Those who are able to be present at the meeting should still plan to attend the hearing.” The use of email questions is not designed to eliminate or reduce the normal procedure requiring and encouraging attendance in person at commission public hearings and meetings. All interested parties are encouraged to continue to attend and participate. The use of email questions is intended to be a limited accommodation to those who are unable to attend, but wish to ask a basic and factual question. The following policies apply to emails received by the P&Z for comment at public hearings:

  • The email questions be limited to basic questions of a factual nature and cannot provide speculative information or facts that cannot be verified during the hearing. Similarly, the email questions cannot be argumentative or used to articulate a position in favor of or against the proposed application. 
  • Email questions will be accepted only during the public comment period of the application currently on the agenda. 
  • All email questions must have the name and address of the Westport resident making the inquiry. 
  • Email questions will be limited to 25 words or less. No photos or attachments will be accepted. 
  • Email questions that have offensive, abusive or insulting comments will not be accepted. 
  • There is a limit of three email questions per item on the agenda. No follow-up questions will be allowed. The commission, acting through the chairman, reserves the right to not accept any email questions if time or any other considerations dictate. 
  • The applicant and any intervening parties will have the opportunity before the public hearing is closed to respond to any email questions, if so desired. If necessary, the applicant has the right to request a continuance if the information raised in an email cannot be answered during that meeting. 
  • The chairman and the planning and zoning director, together, reserve the right to not accept a particular email question deemed inappropriate or not pertinent to the application at hand.
  •  The commission reserves the right to suspend the acceptance of email comments at any time. 
  • Emails that are read aloud during the meeting will be printed out the next day and added to the file.

All emails should be sent to PANDZ@Westportct.gov. For questions related to the new email policy, call the Planning & Zoning Department Office at 203-341-1030 or by email at pandz@westportct.gov.