“The public hearing is perhaps the most widespread venue for public participation in the United States, used by all levels of government for a variety of purposes.”
A public hearing is a type of public meeting, and much literature refers to it as such, however there are some distinctive aspects that make a hearing different. Abigail Williamson and Archon Fung define a public hearing as “an open gathering of officials and citizens, in which citizens are permitted to offer comments, but officials are not obliged to act on them or, typically, even to respond publicly.” The main purpose of a public hearing is to allow citizens the chance to voice opinions and concerns over a decision facing a legislature, agency, or organization.
Most public hearings are held by local or state governments and government agencies, such as the US EPA or California Coastal Commission, as well as local organizations such as a school PTA. More than 97% of local governments hold public hearings, and this high percentage is largely because under most state and federal laws, government agencies are required to hold public hearings before making a final decision that will use government funds and effect the general public. However, even though public hearings are typically required by law, the agency or organization is not required to base their decision on the views and issues presented at the hearing, rather the hearing is a simply a chance for citizens to share opinions.
Public hearings can also be referred to as public inquiries, and “are seen to legitimize controversial decisions taken in several important areas of governmental planning activity.” Hearings give citizens a chance to contribute to the discussion over decisions made by the officials, and as Karpowitz states, “common public hearings are critical institutions for public voice."
A public hearing is typically held when a government, government agency, or organization is making a decision on a course of action, such as a law or plan for construction. The hearing is organized and held by the government agency or organization in the area where the issue will take place and have the greatest effect. Sometimes it is well publicized in the local media, while other times it is barely mentioned, and the level of publicity mostly depends on the amount of controversy surrounding the issue. The level of publicity, in turn, determines how well attended the hearing will be, ranging from auditoriums full of concerned citizens to a small room with only the officials. For most hearings, the agency holding the hearing must notify all the parties they believe to be interested and effected by the outcome of the decision. The public hearing is then made open to the public, and participants are self-selected individuals as well as the representatives from the government agency or organization. In addition, sometimes experts from fields relevant to the issue will be asked to present information and answer questions.
The structure of each public hearing varies depending on the specifications made by the organizing group, however a typical hearing begins with statements and presentations made by the officials presiding over the hearing. In addition, at the beginning there is typically a presentation of the technical aspects, especially for issues that center around planning, such as construction of a bridge. These presentations are then followed by a period for public comments and questions. The citizens comments are limited in time, for example two minutes, with a period usually established at the beginning of the hearing. Citizens typically approach a microphone and/or podium, and present facing the officials with backs to the citizen audience.
As Williamson and Fung explain, the type of relationship between the citizens who attend the public hearing and the agency or organization that is making the final decision can be classified in two categories: informational and consultation. The informational aspect is because the officials at the hearing are given a chance to explain the proposed action and answer citizen’s questions on the issue. A hearing is also a consultation, because citizens and outside experts are typically invited to give opinions and suggest alternative solutions to the officials who will make the final decision.
According to Forester, the use of public hearings began following the process of the enclosure of public lands that occurred in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the beginning of the enclosure process, for each plot of land that was going to be enclosed, a separate act of Parliament was required. Public meetings were held in order to create a petition to parliament to enclose the land, and later to hear objections to the act created by Parliament. These public meetings were resided over by a commission, who were bound by impartiality. The commissioners were originally assigned, however, in later years there was at least one who was publicly appointed. In 1845, the General Inclosure Act created permanent commissioners who sent all bills to Parliament, and one publicly appointed commissioner who resided over the public meetings to hear citizen concerns. This use of commissions to hear public concerns over the enclosure of lands was one of the first examples of a public hearing, and emphasizes how most public hearings today are used when dealing with public lands as well as private properties.
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