Description of Initiative:
Public involvement and transparency are key elements of government. Creating opportunities for meaningful involvement in controversial permits or rulemakings can be challenging. With public hearings for a controversial coal export facility on the horizon, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) determined that the agency needed a new model for public hearings with high public interest.
Business, citizens, local governments, and environmental groups are deeply invested in the outcome of this permitting process. Late last year DEQ held three four-hour evening information meetings attended by crowds up to 800. They noted participants’ frustration over waiting all evening and not having the opportunity to speak. DEQ decided to take a different approach for upcoming public hearings on the permits, determined to provide better opportunities for people to participate. The result was a model with multiple ways for citizens and stakeholders to participate during DEQ’s public hearing process and a new level of real-time transparency.
DEQ designed a new public hearing model and leveraged existing software, databases, and free third-party services to create a cost-effective integrated, online public hearing experience.
Elements of this communication model:
- Online public informational meeting—This gave people the opportunity to review information at their own pace, 24/7. Online slideshows that clearly outlined the permits that were open for public comment using PowerPoint web apps and Microsoft SkyDrive provide a smooth and efficient user experience.
- Web based comment form—DEQ gives the same weight to written and verbal comment. The goal was to make it easy for citizens to comment online and attach additional documents if desired. The agency created an online comment form and added the extra functionality of displaying comments in real-time on the web page. This created a new level of transparency and gives citizens the ability to see what other comments have been made in real-time.
- Online registration to give public comment in person—Normally citizens may have to spend hours waiting to give comment at high-profile public hearings. For example, during three informational meetings for permits related to the Coyote Island Terminal—a coal export facility—144 comments were received during three separate meetings with a combined attendance of over 1,200 people. Attendees waited for hours, and due to time constraints only a small number were able to give comment. Various advocates disrupted the proceedings and interrupted speakers, many of whom confided that they felt intimidated.
By comparison, public comment hearings used a third-party registration system. The meeting structure filled one day, starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m. Sessions were broken into two-hour time periods with 30 available registration slots plus a limited number of walk-ins. These sessions were set up in two locations using three rooms. In one day, this provided 540 open slots for public comment. In addition, citizens were assigned a two-hour window to give their comment. This structure created more opportunity for DEQ to receive comments and respect commenters’ time, and provided a more orderly and less intimidating environment for commenters.
Results to Date:
More than 500 people attended the hearings, and 350 provided in-person comment. The proceedings were calm and orderly, and many individuals thanked DEQ staff for the new approach. Based on a public engagement survey distributed at the meetings, 65 percent of hearing participants agreed that DEQ provided opportunities for them to weigh in on issues, compared with about 45 percent for the informational meetings.
While groups rallied outside the facility, there were no disruptions in the hearing rooms even though many people brought a great deal of passion to their testimony. News releases directed more than 3,000 visitors to the website, and to date, 259 people have commented online.
Outreach and Communications Manager
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality
(503) 229-6585 (office)
(971) 563-6662 (cell)