Meeting Face to Face: Public Meetings, Hearings, Open Houses and more

Posted: Apr 8, 2010

In addition to providing notice and requesting written comments, part of the federal public participation process often involves public meetings, hearings, and/or open houses as another way for agencies to obtain public input on an issue. But there are other opportunities to meet face-to-face with decision-makers at all levels of government, from the U.S. Congress to your local planning commission. In this edition of the Problem-Solving Tools Series, we highlight some of the various opportunities to voice your comments and concerns, describe what you can expect, and provide links to other resources and “how-to guides” for more information.

What are the Forums?  What Should I Expect?

Public Meetings

A public meeting is a gathering where people come together to share information, exchange ideas, introduce new services and ways of working, or to develop relationships and contacts.  The purpose of a public meeting is to discuss issues, not to make decisions.  By allowing for a two-way flow of information, meetings provide an opportunity for people to share their concerns, hear other points of view, and identify areas of conflict.  The term “public meeting” is used rather loosely to describe anything from community members gathering to informally discuss an issue to more formal events used to obtain comment on an agency decision or action.public meeting epa

While anyone can have a meeting and make it open to the public, public meetings that are convened by agencies or local governments generally provide a specific opportunity for the public to voice their concerns about a proposed action.  At these events, agencies will often give a brief presentation about the proposed action and provide a period for questions and answers.  In the public notice of a proposed action, agencies may include a schedule for public meetings along with other background materials and a request for written comments.  Other times agencies may only request written comments.  If no meeting is scheduled, a public meeting may be requested by sending a letter to the agency contact indicated in the notice.

Recent public meetings

BLM public meeting on West-wide energy corridor draft EIS 
The Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and the Department of Defense are seeking comment on the recently released Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (Draft PEIS) for the West-wide Energy Corridor.  Public meetings to take oral comments on the Draft PEIS are being held in 11 Western states and in Washington, D.C. 

Public meeting notice on treatment of Yellowstone National Park bison 
A notice for a public meeting regarding how bison are treated outside of the Yellowstone Park boundary.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) public meeting 
The NRC is holding public meetings on Geologic Repository Operation Area Security and Material Control and Accounting Requirements in Nevada.

Public meeting on Idaho roadless areas 
The Forest Service announces a public comment period and associated public meetings for a draft environmental impact statement on roadless areas in Idaho.   

Public meetings in the news 

Hazing critical to this winter’s bison management plan 
At a Dec. 4 public meeting in Bozeman, Mont., officials from Yellowstone and four other federal and state agencies said they are making plans to move quickly this winter to get bison back into the park and, if necessary, capture others for slaughter. 

Public meetings shouldn't be marred by insults, unruly behavior 
The U.S. Forest Service organizes open meetings to answer questions and to give everyone a chance to weigh in on the use of our public lands. When people are intimidated into silence, they are effectively denied access to a public forum.

Private Meetings

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF UPPER SAN PEDRO PARTNERSHIP

Private meetings can also be scheduled with agency personnel to discuss issues of concern in addition to or in the absence of public opportunities.  More casual in nature, private meetings allow all parties the opportunity to be more candid and to engage in a true discussion not hampered by public participation rules and constraints of a large group.  Of course, exclusive private meetings can also foster distrust among other interested parties.  

There is a fine line between developing healthy working relationships with agency personnel and improper backroom influence.  FACA was created to deal with just this problem by opening up the process through which non-government groups give advice to federal decision-makers.  The distinction is, however, that FACA only regulates advisory groups, not individuals, and a one-time meeting is not likely to fall within the purview of FACA rules.  FACA rules apply only to advisory groups that are established by the agency, or managed or controlled by the agency.

To arrange a private meeting, work with existing contacts in the agency (or government office) and invite relevant decision-makers and influential allies. See the public notice and comment edition of the series for tips on developing agency contacts.

Public Hearings

Public hearings in the news

Spotted owl public hearing
Public hearings are to be held in January regarding a review of spotted owl plan. 

Preble's meadow jumping mouse hearing
The Fish and Wildlife Service held a public hearing in Denver on December 10th to get comments on its proposal to maintain protections for the Preble's meadow jumping mouse in the state. 

West-wide energy corridor hearing
Eminent domain and sensitive lands topped concerns on the West-wide energy cooridor proposal.

Public hearings are generally more formal than public meetings and differ in other ways as well. There are two main types of public hearings— those held by agencies or local governments and those held by legislative bodies.
Public hearings hosted by federal and state agencies are held specifically to obtain public testimony or comment on a proposed action or decision. Agencies hold hearings to obtain input on a variety of proposed actions or proposals including environmental impact statements, permits, plans, and proposals. Remarks made during the hearing are recorded and an official transcript of the meeting is made publicly available. An often cited criticism of public hearings is the one-way nature of proceedings. In contrast to many public meetings, time is not allotted for the agency to answer questions. Furthermore, representatives of the agency or local government that are present at the hearing will not usually respond to comments or engage in a discussion about the proposal. However, the agency will prepare a written response to the comments or issues raised during a hearing, in addition to written comments received during the comment period. 

Depending upon a jurisdiction's local ordinance, public hearings are also held by many local governments as well (city councils, county commissions, planning commissions, etc.), often when a city or county considers land use planning or permits. 

Legislative bodies also hold hearings. Hearings held by the U.S. Congress are the primary, formal method through which congressional committees collect and analyze information in the early stages of legislative policy-making. While these hearings are usually 
Congressional hearing transcripts

Hearing testimony may be transcribed, but it may not be easy to find

Here are some on-line sources to check: 

Congressional Hearings on GPO Access 

House of Representatives Committees - choose from a drop-down menu for your committee of choice or choose the committees below: 

House Resources Committee - current hearings 

House Committee on Agriculture - 105th to current Congress 

Senate Committees - choose from a list or choose the committees below: 

Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry - click on Hearings/Ag Hearings 

Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources - 105th to current Congress 
open to the public, oral testimony is accepted only from invited witnesses. Experts on the subject in question, government officials, interest groups, and academia are usually among those invited to testify.  During Congressional hearings, the panel of witnesses will have an opportunity to express their thoughts on the matter in question, followed by questions from committee members.  Quite often, the time for giving oral testimony is limited and witnesses will summarize their remarks and provide a more complete written testimony. Testimony, questions and answers are recorded in a transcript and made publicly available along with any written testimony submitted by the panel.

Congress also occasionally holds congressional hearings outside of Washington. Called "field hearings," these are usually held during times when Congress is not in session and in locations relevant to the issue. Otherwise, there is little distinction. For example, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry held a series of field hearings in the 109th Congress about the Farm Bill. One such hearing was held in Redmond Oregon. While the issue was national in scope, the Oregon hearing focused on the bill's impact to that region, and all of the witnesses were from Oregon. 

State legislatures also hold hearings as a way of formal information gathering. The policies of state legislatures vary from state to state, but many states allow citizens to testify at legislative hearings as well as invited experts. 

Open Houses

Though often used synonymously with "public meeting," at the federal and state level, open houses are generally informal events that provide the public with an opportunity to interact with agency staff, ask questions, and to offer comments on an agency proposal in a more informal setting. The agency usually provides relevant maps and data, and may make a brief presentation. Sometimes open houses are held in conjunction with public hearings where agency staff will be available in an open house setting prior to a more formal public hearing where oral testimony is accepted. Open houses are also held by local governments, typically to discuss local ordinances. 

The only time an agency is required to record comments is during public hearings. If you have comments or concerns you want formally considered, make sure you ask how to make them part of the record. 
Recent open houses

Forest Service to host travel management open houses
The Siuslaw National Forest will be hosting a series of open houses in late January and early February to share its proposal for future motorized access and motorized use areas on the National Forest.

Open house notice: BLM Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS
Informal open house style public meetings on the Draft PEIS are tentatively scheduled for February 2008.

Workshops

While many meetings are frequently referred to as "workshops," the most effective workshops involve active participation and have a strong emphasis on problem-solving. Participation in workshops can increase the sense of ownership and empowerment over a problem. They can be effective in managing change, in developing initiatives, plans, processes, and actions to achieve particular goals, while also breaking down barriers that may exist between organizations and individuals.

Workshops can be held by any government entity, organization, or community group. Federal agencies typically hold workshops to disseminate information or provide training, while workshops are used by community groups and other NGOs for a variety of purposes. In some cases, groups find workshops useful for educating themselves by inviting guest experts to come discuss relevant issues in order to create a common baseline for knowledge. In other cases, workshops are used to jointly develop management plans, recommendations, or initiatives. 

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The Beatty Habitat Committee during a workshop field trip.
PHOTO BY JIM MOORE

Examples where workshops were used to advance goals

Sonoita Valley Planning Partnership 
A workshop facilitated by the Sonoran Institute proved to be the impetus for the formation of the Sonoita Valley Planning Partnership (SVPP) to promote community-wide participation in public land management. 

Beatty Habitat Committee
The Beatty Habitat Committee brought together landscape architects and urban planners in a workshop to design the Beatty Habitat and Trails Project.

Heart Mountain Grassbank
Ranchers participating in the grassbank were required to attend a one-day range-monitoring workshop, where they learned techniques that could be applied to their public allotments or private acreage.

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The Quincy Library Group on a field trip to a demonstration thinning project.
PHOTO BY JANE BRAXTON LITTLE

Field Trips

Organized trips to see the resource first hand are often used for education, relationship building, and advocacy. Within an organization, initiative, or effort, field trips can aid in bringing people to a shared understanding by talking about scientific and cultural issues in the context of the landscape.  By inviting experts along on the trip, field trips can go a long way in establishing a common frame of reference which can be helpful for discussions back in the meeting room. Field trips can also be important in building relationships since there is usually more time for unstructured conversation. Field trips are also commonly used in advocacy efforts to educate the media or to lobby decision-makers about a particular issue. If you have a particularly compelling, timely, or politically relevant story to tell, hosting a field trip for congressional staff members from key congressional offices or committees, or the media may be a useful tool for achieving your goals. For more information about organizing a congressional field trip, see the Communities Committee's Conducting Congressional Staff Field Tours. 

NRLC Field Tours for Congressional Staff

The Natural Resources Law Center has sponsored field tours for congressional staff on both energy and endangered species issues. A few lessons we learned along the way:

  • DON'T preach to the choir. DO invite a diverse group of participants who will enrich the discussion.
  • DON'T limit presentations to one side of the issue. DO provide balance - recognizing that there are legitimate differences on most natural resources issues.
  • DON'T alienate your tour group by talking down to them even if you think most of them need the "Issue 101" version. DO utilize issue experts - whether they be professionals or community members - and aim the level of presentation high.
  • DON'T hesitate to invite speakers. DO recognize that they (and you) can gain as much from participating in the tour as your audience.
  • DON'T over-schedule the program at the expense of give and take. DO make time for questions and discussion.
  • DON'T turn your field tour into a conference room briefing. DO get out into the field - whether it is out in nature or touring an industrial plant. Walking and seeing is worth a thousand Powerpoint slides.
  • DON'T frustrate your audience or presenters with a noisy tour stop. DO make sure there are quiet areas for briefings at your field site, or have a short orientation before venturing into that noisy facility.

Listening Sessions

An increasing trend in public participation is for agencies, elected officials, and non-governmental organizations to hold listening sessions. While there is a wide degree of variation depending on the issue and the host, listening sessions generally are an opportunity for citizens to exchange ideas and provide recommendations on programs and policies. Similar to public meetings, many listening sessions begin with the agency or official giving a brief presentation on the issue and then allowing time for citizens to offer comments or recommendations.

Members of Congress also occasionally hold listening sessions for their constituents. These can either be focused on a particular issue (see Senator Salazar’s listening session below) or more general opportunities for constituents to raise concerns to their elected representative. As Russ Feingold explains, “Listening Sessions, which I believe are one of the most rewarding parts of my job, are designed to allow people to discuss concerns, and listen to friends and neighbors do the same in an open environment. Except for my brief introductory remarks, I spend the entire time listening, taking notes and responding to questions. Wisconsinites give me great ideas for new legislation at these meetings, and when they tell me that they are having a problem with a federal agency, I can try to help.” 
Examples of recent listening sessions

Cooperative Conservation Listening Sessions
The Department of the Interior, along with the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality hosted listening sessions on cooperative conservation and environmental partnerships around the country during August and September 2006. 

Senator Salazar's Listening Sessions in Colorado
Senator Ken Salazar held listening sessions around Colorado to gather input on the 2007 Farm Bill. 

National Farmers Union Farm Bill Listening Sessions
During the summer of 2006, National Farmers Union held 13 Farm Bill Listening Sessions across the nation, with hundreds of farmers, ranchers and rural citizens participating. 

BLM Split Estate Listening Sessions
The BLM held a series of listening sessions about issues surrounding development of federally owned oil and natural gas resources that underlie privately owned surface lands during the spring of 2006. 

Federal Advisory Committees and Resource Advisory Councils

In addition to the formal processes established for the public to meet with and provide comments to federal agencies, Federal Advisory Committees and Resource Advisory Councils (RACs) have been established as ongoing forums for citizens to advise federal agencies. Enacted in 1972, the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) governs how the federal government seeks outside advice. FACA was created to control the advisory committee process, to require government agencies to be more transparent about advice they receive from private individuals and to protect against undue influence by special interest groups over government decision-making. The Act has had an important impact on public participation in environmental decision-making- from who participates to what influence they are able to have on policy. 

Through FACA, Congress supported the concept of the Executive branch seeking advice from outside sources, but lawmakers drew a line between giving advice and making decisions, specifying that "the function of advisory committees should be advisory only...all matters under their consideration should be determined, in accordance with the law, by the official, agency, or officer involved" (5 USC Appendix, section 2 (b)(6)).  The legislation also included provisions for various exemptions from FACA requirements, some of which have since proven important to the effective incorporation of broadly-based collaborative processes into federal land management.  Groups exempt from FACA include fact finding and information exchange groups, meetings with people providing individual advice as opposed to collective advice, and meetings initiated and managed by an outside group as long as the government does not use that group recurrently for advice.  There are about 950 FACA groups that are performing a variety of functions including conducting scientific research; offering advice on policy issues; identifying long-range issues; and evaluating grant proposals (seeFACA for more information). 

As mentioned in the series segment on notice and comments, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) provides that federal, state, and local governments and the public, must have "adequate notice and opportunity to comment upon and participate in the formulation of plans and programs relating to the management of the public lands."  Beyond this, FLPMA provides opportunity for formal citizen participation through FACA-chartered advisory councils.  Rejuvenated in 1995 by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit, Resource Advisory Councils(RACs), are made up of local residents representing three major stakeholder groups: 

  • commercial and/or commodity interests;
  • environmental and/or historical organizations;
  • state and local government, Native American tribes, and the public at large.  

The Secretary of the Interior appoints RAC members based on advice from the appropriate governor and BLM state director.  While opportunities for service on a RAC are limited by its size and representation requirements, RACs may have subcommittees that include non-RAC members and hold open meetings which normally provide opportunity for individuals to provide oral or written comments.
Other FACA resources

The Federal Advisory Committee Act Database
The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) database is used by Federal agencies to continuously manage an average of 1,000 advisory committees government-wide. This database is also used by the Congress to perform oversight of related Executive Branch programs and by the public, the media, and others, to stay abreast of important developments resulting from advisory committee activities. 

BLM Resource Advisory Council Page
Links to all 24 RACs by state. 

The Federal Advisory Committee Act and Public Participation in Environmental Policy
A discussion paper from Resources for the Future on how FACA affects public participation and decision-making, including the statutes many "chilling effects." 

Legal Challenges to Collaboration
The Ecosystem Management Initiative at the University of Michigan has compiled several resources related to FACA including rules, requirements, and a decision chart. 

Tips and guides for hosting and participating in effective public events

Holding public meetings 
I&DeA Knowledge (Improvement and Development Agency for local government) provides suggestions for running effective public meetings. Tips and advice are offered for encouraging people to turn up, choosing a venue, creating the right atmosphere, making a good start, keeping control, and following up.

Planning and conducting effective public meetings
The Ohio State University Extension compiled a factsheet on how to hold public meetings. The document offers suggestions for effectively planning and conducting contentious public meetings. 

Effective public participation and communication
The Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (MRSC) provides a collection of tips acquired through experience  participating in successful and unsuccessful processes.  Information includes suggestions for dealing with communication barriers, guidelines for improving public processes, and additional resources. 

Public hearings: when and how to hold them 
MRSC has also collected information specific to public hearings, including a description of the differences between public hearings and public meetings, procedural requirements, when public hearings should be held, what they should look like, and tips for success.

Running workshops for motivation, team-building and improving performance 
Businessballs, a learning and development resource, provides several workshop format variations and models as well as tips on designing workshops.

Twelve tips for conducting effective workshops 
The College of Family Physicians of Canada offers a collection of tips on designing and conducting an effective workshop that transcends disciplines.

Conducting congressional staff field tours 
The Communities Committee created a Quick Guide to help communities plan and hold field tours for congressional staff.

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