NIMBY Notes: Pitchforks Denied

How shrewd public forum planning can defuse and redirect an otherwise “angry mob.”

At some point in the lifecycle of any controversial waste or recycling project, you will be asked (read: required) by the powers that be to hold a public forum for interested (read: angry) residents to present their concerns (read: accusations) about you, your company and your project. Veterans of the permitting process know that these meetings are rarely productive, barely civil and never fun. They are simply a hurdle to be suffered through on the path to approval.

Typically, these forums are structured with the project’s lead developer in the largest room in a school or church (which is appropriate, since he is often crucified). There, he receives the full brunt of an angry crowd’s wrath: hostile accusations, insults disguised as questions, and misleading statistics dug up from some corner of the internet. Afterward, the headlines in the local paper are inevitably terrible: “Landfill Developer Wilts Under Public Spotlight” or some such. The tone these meetings set can permanently stain the press and public’s perception of your project.

However, open forums don’t have to be this way. Done right, these sessions can defuse public anger and create some positive stories in the media.

The structure of a large meeting can truly make a difference. The most common format is also the most harmful; a “man on stage” system, where the developer or spokesperson is up in front, fielding questions from a large crowd. This setup can lead to a mob mentality as members of the crowd feed off of each other’s energy. Speaking in front of their friends, family and neighbors, questioners are tempted to showboat and make clear their disdain for the developer. For the same reason, they rarely if ever back down or concede a point -- not with the whole town looking on!

Instead, we recommend a decentralized forum that’s more like an open house than an inquisition. The developer’s representatives, engineers and experts are all in attendance, but scattered at different corners of the room or in different rooms all together, along with their maps, diagrams and charts. Attendees are encouraged to walk freely from one “station” to the next, each with a different focus: environmental impacts, financial benefits, health questions, etc. This system still provides all the information your project team wants to get across, but does so in a way that heads off a “critical mass” of upset citizens. It also increases the likelihood of actual productive, respectful discourse between experts and residents, because questioners are more likely to be alone or in small groups.

A recent plan for the local government of Cowlitz County to purchase a nearby industrial landfill and convert it to municipal solid waste disposal has proven the wisdom of this approach. The county held a public forum to collect citizen input on the move, but cleverly adopted a format similar to the one we advocate in this column.

The result? A frustrated NIMBY brigade that was unable to get their desired optics. As the local paper put it: Residents of the area were angry that the meeting didn’t follow a formal hearing format, in which individuals testify directly to decision-makers in front of the entire assembly. Instead, residents were asked to meet one-on-one with public officials or to have their comments taken by a court reporter. One perceptive NIMBY-ite explained to the paper exactly what happened: “'It’s divide and conquer,’ said Dave York, a Silver Lake native. “’They divided us up so we can’t all hear what everyone else has to say.’”

With the tough regulatory hurdles waste projects must overcome, public hearings are inevitable. But a public relations fiasco is not.

Darden H. Copeland is managing director of the Calvert Street Group, a public affairs consulting firm focused on state & local affairs, land-use and development, and grassroots lobbying.

Have a suggestion, question or case study for NIMBY Notes? Email the author at [email protected]

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