Practical measures to de-stress a contentious public hearing

Providing clear expectations and small, personal gestures can help diffuse a tense public hearing and ease nerves for participants.

The stakes can be high at a public hearing especially if there is the expectation of a significant or far-reaching decision. The less obvious reason for high stakes is that this may be the first public meeting a citizen attends and it may also be the last if he/she has a negative experience. Very few people would indicate a “love” for public hearings and there are clearly better ways of obtaining public input. However, it is common that the public hearing is relied on as the sole form of public input due to time and resource constraints. For a simple dimensional variance, the public hearing is the obvious choice for public input (and it’s legally required). Some public hearings can be small and relatively informal while others might fill an auditorium and require formal rules for both efficiency and decorum.

For those larger or potentially contentious hearings, setting up clear expectations for citizen and decision makers’ roles in the hearing process can go a long way toward creating a more constructive experience.  Regardless of the decision outcome, citizens should be welcomed, informed about the process, and know they were heard. Here are some simple steps a public body might take to lower frustration levels at a public hearing:

  • Prior to the meeting, staff can informally let a participant know the steps of the hearing, when they will be asked to speak, and how or if a decision will be made at that meeting.
  • If this is a big issue, get a bigger room. Size the meeting venue for expected crowds so everyone has a seat. If there is a change from the regular meeting time or location, remember to post the new meeting time or location to comply with Michigan’s Open Meetings Act
  • A person (staff or board) can pass out an agenda as people are coming in. Welcome them, “thanks for coming”, “good to see you”.  If they are a newcomer to meetings, point to the agenda and let them know their opportunity to speak at public comment.
  • For a contentious issue, it is particularly important for the Chair to review expected rules of conduct at the beginning of the meeting. Consider putting the rules on the agenda as a reference. An example of expected conduct would be addressing all comments and questions through the Chair or setting a time limit on public comment.  For a very small public hearing (such as for one or two people) this may not be necessary.
  • If there are limits on public comment, such as three-to-five minutes per person, make sure it is consistently on the agenda. Time limits can seem undemocratic to those that do not attend meetings regularly. It might be a little off-putting to hear “your time is up” if there was no information about time limits up front.   
  • The Chair must cordially and consistently enforce the rules to keep the meeting on course.
  • The Chair should be forthcoming about the purpose of the hearing at the beginning, inform the public that the board is there to listen and they are not intentionally being rude if they don’t respond to comments and questions. Having said that, the Chair should have a game plan on how he/she wants to succinctly respond to citizen questions or impassioned pleas during a hearing; the deer-in-the-headlights option of returning a blank stare and silence because it is only a hearing will damage public trust and can be quite awkward for everyone.  
  • The Chair should extend a small courtesy such as “thanks for your comment” after each speaker. This small courtesy lets each speaker know they were heard.
  • Body language should affirm that the board is listening, attentive, and professional. Body language that shows frustration with certain commentary or outright boredom/yawning can quickly escalate tensions in the room.

While the public hearing process is inadequate in many ways, it can provide a clear and concise opportunity for the public to express concerns and influence a decision. Practicing these few simple approaches will help to set clear expectations and support a more constructive public hearing process.

The Michigan State University Extension Government and Public Policy team offers training for elected and appointed officials for improved effectiveness in several areas, including various public policy issues and effects of government programs, regulation, incentives, strategies and more. By working together with local elected and appointed officials, and interested citizens, MSU Extension is able to provide education on critical local and state issues. The Michigan State University Extension Government and Public Policy team also offers professional training. To contact an expert in your area, visit MSU Extension’s expert search system or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464). 

Did you find this article useful?