Saline Preservation Association
The voice of Saline Valley
I recently attended a land use meeting regarding the potential site locations of alternative energy projects in the California desert, a topic I have been following with some interest for a while now. At various times during the meeting, the attending public was given a limited opportunity to speak to the specific matters that were on the panel's agenda at that point in the meeting. The object of the public comment periods was for the public to provide comments, suggestions, and otherwise help the panel identify issues with the specified topic at hand.
Unfortunately, almost without exception, those who chose to speak during those opportunities used the time to speak to their own general concerns that did not necessarily address the discussion for which the panel was receiving comment. I could see the frustration of the panel over this lack of focus. While I joined the panel in quietly biding time during these monologues, a little voice inside my head was screaming the question, "Do you just want to speak, or do you want to be heard?"
As I generally do, I tried to find a constructive way to deal with my own emotions, but as the speakers droned on, they were drowning out my ability to focus on the discussion until I realized I had to leave. I can't imagine how the panelists dealt with it.
On the drive back to my campsite in the desert, I realized that the public comment issue was not a new one. For decades now, I have heard SO many people say after attending a public land use meeting,"I don't feel like my voice was heard."
As an outgrowth of my trade, I often find myself creating visualizations for things beyond the realm of auto mechanics. In this case, the idea of using radio as a metaphor came to mind. If a deliberative panel has chosen to open up a specific issue for public comment, it is akin to having chosen a particular station on the radio to listen to. That being the case, why would anyone choose to broadcast on a different frequency? In other words, if the comments don't address the issues the panel is there to listen to, broadcasting on their frequency as it were, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the message is going to be heard as static. To the one broadcasting, their words may well seem clear as day, but they have as much clarity to the audience as when adults speak in a Charlie Brown cartoon: "wa, wa wa wa wa wa wa."
There is a time and a place for everything, and we all need to remain keenly aware land use meetings take precious time from very full lives to attend. Just because it is a gathering of people interested in land use issues, it does not automatically mean THAT meeting is THE PLACE or the time for what we have to say, especially if the message we bring is off-topic. Choosing to speak under those circumstances only increases the likelihood that your need to speak outweighs the need to be heard. And, unfortunately, it may be worse than that.
Speaking "off topic"-broadcasting on a different frequency than your audience is tuned to-often infects the message you're trying to deliver. Misdirection can also detune your audience over time, effectively preventing them from hearing you in the future. "Oh, it's just him/her again." If you carry a title, and attend these meetings regularly, you REALLY need to take care to not become labeled as a broadcaster of static. In other words, not every public lands meeting is an opportunity to discuss every issue on public lands just because you made the time to be there.
Do yourself, and the public who desperately needs your voice to be heard, a big favor and ask yourself before you attend a land use meeting if: 1) that meeting is the appropriate forum for ALL of your comments; and 2) whether or not you are willing to defer SOME OR ALL of your comments if the appropriate opportunity doesn't present itself. If you cannot answer these two simple questions in the affirmative, then the chances are pretty good that your need to speak outweighs your need to be heard, and both your reputation and your message will suffer for it.
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