Arrive to the meeting a little early. Sign up with the clerk. Take a seat. Wait. And wait. And wait. Hours later, the governing board arrives at the agenda item of your interest. The presenter takes to the podium to introduce the topic to the board and the community. After some back and forth between board members and the presenter, the mayor finally announces the start of public comment and begins calling names off the list. Three minutes per person, loosely enforced (if at all). On controversial topics, this can go on for hours, all under the guise of public engagement.
This is what someone wanting to speak at a public meeting experiences when they show up at a government meeting. It’s an inefficient process that is inaccessible and undesirable for most community residents. So few community members have the time or energy or desire to sit through hours of meetings just to say a few words. Only residents with plenty of free time, who are either retired or never have to work nights, without young children or other familial care responsibilities, and with access to private transportation can get to these meetings to offer their thoughts. Most community members likely have no idea how public comment works or what issues are being discussed at any given meeting.
The result is a “public engagement” process that prioritizes only the most privileged voices and leaves out the voices of a majority of stakeholders. Parents, lower-income residents, transit-dependent residents, and younger residents are just a sampling of the voices that are seldom ever heard during a public comment period. As a result, our policymakers hear a biased set of voices that shape the discussion and outcomes around their interests while leaving out the rest of the community.
For example, one speaker at a recent Carrboro Board of Aldermen meeting commented that the pending construction of a multi-use, paved path is “tearing the community apart.” But most community members likely have no idea about the pending construction of the path, and if the path provides a convenient way to bike or walk to destinations, most community members will probably make use of it. This reality is far from the claims that our community is being ripped apart over the construction of a path—rather, only a tiny, non-representative sliver of our community has any opinion on the path at all.
The point here is that public hearings tell us very little about what our entire community actually thinks on any given issue, and often nothing about the most impacted community members. Our elected officials must instead consider the working single mom of two, the small business owner who works 80 hours a week, the student who bartends at night to cover some living expenses, the Habitat homeowner who works at UNC, and all of the other folks just like them when making decisions that will affect our entire community. These individuals—and many others like them—will never be able to or have an interest in attending a public meeting. But that doesn’t mean that their interests don’t matter; they do. They matter a lot. And it’s critical that we all remember that just because their voices aren’t heard at public meetings that they do exist.
Maybe you don’t want that tree cut down to make room for a new path. But think about the Landings resident who doesn’t own a car and relies on biking and walking to get around and the positive impact that new path will have on her/his life. A safer, more efficient route that benefits people and improves their lives is a benefit well worth the tradeoff.
Maybe you think a 10-acre park is just what our community needs. But think about the startup that’s in desperate need of a larger office space to grow their business and more housing for their employees to live close to their jobs. With so few private sector jobs and little tax revenue coming in from sources other than property taxes, what happens when this startup leaves our community if the office space they need is never provided?
Our community is more than just the voices we hear at public meetings. And we shouldn’t forget that when our elected officials are faced with tradeoffs and choices they have to make in the interest of all of our community, not just those with the luxury of attending a meeting to say their piece.