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The Event at the Red Church

Imagine that it is the bleak end of winter in the Yellowstone high country. You are working with an advisory committee appointed by a county planning commission. This committee and a few other regular participants – 10-12 people altogether – have been meeting every other week in a small upstairs room in an old brick church that is now a community building. The members of the advisory committee have been steadily working their way through an issues workbook that helps them systematically develop comprehensive planning policies for their area. There has been lots of discussion, but this is a harmonious group. There is little doubt that the committee will complete its assignment if it sticks to its agenda.

NCDD 2008 photo by Tim ThomasTonight, however, there are a lot of new people in the room: more than double the usual number. These folks are unfamiliar with the informal conduct of the meetings so they are sitting quietly in chairs along the wall instead of taking a seat at the table (where they wouldn’t all fit anyway). You have an agenda. Should you just start the meeting and follow it? The chairperson and I agree that we will set the agenda aside and ask why people have come.

It turns out that one seemingly minor decision, embodied in just one paragraph of the evolving policies is seriously problematic for all of these people. A conversation results in the advisory committee making a change. None of these folks ever appear at another meeting. The final product – we took up the agenda again in two weeks – is adopted following a legally-mandated public hearing that is attended by exactly one person who doesn’t have to be there (and that person never speaks). Everyone’s questions have long since been answered.

But what if we had stuck to the agenda that night in the red church? What would that final hearing have been like then?

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Lee Nellis
Lee Nellis, FAICP, of Round River Planning has been helping citizens have a say in conservation, land use, and water quality issues since 1974. His articles here on the NCDD blog are part of Following the Energy, a column on the art of the public engagement.  He hopes his tales on the public process are instructive for NCDDers, and asks that you add your comments and let him know what you think!

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  1. Mark P. says:

    What a great lesson learned!

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