Returning to “Normal” Public Hearings – Doing it Right

This past Thursday I appeared before the Asheboro City Council in a quasi-judicial hearing for a conditional use permit. The city’s new template for safe hearings is worth other governments’ consideration.

No more than 10 people were allowed in chambers at one time. Only the mayor and four council members – enough for a quorum – were present, and they sat two seats apart. The remaining council members attended by phone. Before the meeting, staff and council members kept safe distances. No one shook hands.

Applicants and the public remained in the long hallway outside chambers in chairs placed more than 6 feet apart. Many wore masks.

When each case was called, only the speaker could approach the podium. The second person was required to stand at a marker 6 feet to the rear. Citizens outside the chamber were able to follow proceedings thanks to a large speaker in the hallway.

When our case was called, witnesses were sworn from across the room, and the mayor allowed me to question witnesses if I stood six feet from the podium. In other words, the awareness of public protection was as keen as the city’s knowledge that quasi-judicial proceedings require certain protocols to protect the rights of citizens and applicants.

Of greatest importance, the public’s right to participate and the applicant’s ability to present its case seem to have been protected. Hearing notifications informed the public of the structured format but did not discourage participation. (The previous case on the agenda was side-tracked into a continuance because of public opposition).

When I received notice that the hearing would be held in city hall as originally scheduled, I asked if my appraiser, a serious shelter-in-place person, could remain in her car and enter only if requested. The city’s attorney assured me that the city would allow all reasonable flexibility, including this request.

Upon reflection, a few things could have been done differently. Applicants and citizens should have been asked to wear masks. I forgot to take mine inside, and a well-placed sign would have reminded me. Hand sanitizer should have been available for the public. And official times of public hearings could have been staggered to allow for more hall space had we needed it (as it turned out, we did not).

This format would not work for a hotly contested hearing when large citizen groups want to attend, nor would it work in some of my complex hearings where counsel tables have to be brought into chambers. Asheboro also had good geography – a hearing room large enough to accommodate the essential attendees and a hallway large enough for the public to sit in chairs six feet apart. In other words, this format would not be possible in the Town of Calypso, where the council meets at a table in what is essentially the town hall lobby.

As a state, our learning curve is steep on virtual hearings and in-person hearings with structural health protections.

Earlier in the week, for example, I participated in a call-in public hearing with the Winston-Salem city council where the wrong number was initially given out, applicants could not adequately hear or understand what was being said, and mikes were unmuted. As soon as the clerk told me it was time to speak, she interrupted to inform me the decision had been made. But I passed along my observations, and knowing Winston-Salem, it will conscientiously make the needed improvements.

This is a new world. Learning to live in it will take time . . . and some stumblings through our early missteps.

            Please feel free to forward to others who may be interested. Click on topics of interest to read past blog posts. To receive future posts, add you email to the “subscribe” list. And stay tuned for the next post on new legislation on the conduct of virtual public hearings.

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