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What’s the Purpose of Public Hearings

by on 01/02/2013

I’ve received a small amount of criticism and much support for my essay on why I’m against the Port’s Harbor Square Master Plan, an outcome about which I’m pleased. I’ve also received a small amount of criticism for posting the statement — that is, having an opinion — prior to the public hearing.

For several reasons, I regard criticism for stating a relevant opinion prior to a public hearing as silly:

First, I’ve been expressing similar sentiments, as I did in my post, for nearly a decade. Starting in 2003, I began offering my vision for Edmonds on EdmondsForum.com. After announcing for the Council election, in June of 2011, I posted a series of opinions on the development of downtown and the waterfront. And, along with other candidates, I was asked to state, in writing, interviews, and live forums, my positions on many issues. Hence, nothing in my essay on the Harbor Square Master Plan should surprise anyone who paid even minimal attention to my campaign.

Second, it would be impossible to be neutral prior to public hearings. Before a public hearing is held, Council Members educate themselves by reading reports, doing independent research, gathering viewpoints from e-mails, phone calls, and meetings with citizens, and getting relevant legal opinion from the City Attorney. Would citizens prefer that Council be sequestered like a jury before public hearings? I doubt it. I’m sure that the residents of Edmonds want Council to have as much information as possible when we make law, and most of that information will be available before a hearing. Need I add that it’s impossible not to form a viewpoint after digesting all that material?

Third, it would be unfair to regard public hearings as a referendum on an issue. Approximately 16,000 voters cast their preferences in the last Edmonds election — choosing candidates that reflect (that’s the idea, at least) voters’ preferences on issues and viewpoints expressed during the campaign. Approximately 20 – 100 (being generous) people show, speak, write e-mails, letters, and/or otherwise participate in public hearings. Given the discrepancy of these numbers, the participants in a public hearing cannot be considered a referendum on how Edmonds residents feel about a particular issue, and hence, how Council Members should vote. It’s our responsibility to balance input at pubic hearings with the much larger input of election results.

If public hearings are not referendums, what is their purpose? That they’re legally required is not a sufficient answer. I can think of two major purposes for public hearings: First, exposure to new information. Public hearings give one more opportunity to expose Council to issues of which we might otherwise remain ignorant — issues that can and have (in my case, anyway) changed minds and votes. Second, transparency. Public hearings are the only legal gathering of all seven Council Members in which legislation may be discussed. These hearings give citizens — that is, you — the opportunity to monitor discussions among all the Council Members, and among Council, the Mayor, and City Attorney, and between City officials and the employees. Please participate.

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