Posts Tagged ‘Mike Johnson’

Hearing process needs streamlining

September 11, 2009

Many members of the public who attended a planning and zoning hearing Aug. 27 on a request by Rick Banning to build an apartment complex on an 18-acre parcel off Plantation Road left the building in a huff.

Those who stuck around for the marathon hearing were critical of the commission and particularly of Chairman Bob Wheatley.

Wheatley, who without saying it, said he had heard enough, cut off those who spoke near the end of the 4-hour hearing.

It was a little out of character for Wheatley, who usually goes out of his way to make sure everyone has time to speak his or her mind.

Residents couldn’t understand why they were given time limits while the applicant was not. It’s a legitimate complaint.

On a complex application like this one, the applicant’s presentation can take as long as two hours or longer, which includes time for questions by commission members.

After two hours of anything, a person’s patience and attention span is tested to the maximum. And in this particular hearing, the public didn’t have a chance to speak until around 8 p.m.

As speaker after speaker took the podium, time ticked away. It was nearly 9:30 p.m. before the “heavy hitters” got up to speak. Those who had the most to say, and who had prepared the most, had the least amount of time to talk. There is a lesson to be learned here by all of you preparing to testify in a public hearing – fire the big guns early.

That’s not to say the county’s current public hearing system doesn’t need some work. Although it’s great that people have the chance to address officials in person, restraint should be placed on the applicants. Some people are convinced they go on and on and on for a reason – to wear down the opposition.

I can’t see where a time limit of 45 minutes or one hour would hurt any applicant’s chances of getting their message across to planning zoning or county council. Perhaps questions from the commission and council should come after the public has the opportunity to speak.

During another marathon public hearing Sept. 10 on a rezoning request in Lewes, Commissioner Mike Johnson did just that. He reserved his comments and questions to the end of the meeting so the public could speak before the hour got too late. The hearing lasted almost 6 hours.

And likewise, public testimony should be limited to 10 or 15 minutes at the most. Although many would disagree, I concur that the chairman of the commission should have the right to cut people off when they are being redundant.

Streamlining the process would help both sides.

Putting time limits on free speech is a slippery slope, and in most cases I would be an advocate for no limits. But in the case of Sussex County public hearings, the “public” is getting pushed to the rear of the bus and is forced to endure way too much chitchat before it gets a chance to talk.

Commission attorney Vince Robertson said before the start of the Sept. 10 hearing that the chairman can limit what the applicants say as well as how long the speakers talk. It’s rare that applicants are told to speed it up, although it does happen.

He also noted that letters and emails submitted to county officials as part of the record carry as much weight as spoken testimony. There is another lesson for those interested in getting their message heard – write a letter and you won’t have to endure the pain of sitting through a long public hearing.
That is unless you want to learn every little detail about the application.