Thursday, December 19, 2002

...and then I go to a public hearing on a big public project, and I feel like a jerk for that last post.

*This* public project is *terrific*, it has *vision*, it has *style*, it not only does no harm, it actually will have some benefits to the environment, even more benefits to some heretofore underserved or unserved populations in the community, it will be a free and open feature that anyone who wants to, will be able to enjoy.

Public hearings. I've seen dozens of them. Lots of people in expensive suits and haircuts milling around with the peeps, glad-handing, smiling, answering questions about the project du jour. Fewer ordinary citizens; and a handful of sad street people who wander in for the free cookies and coffee. We all circulate slowly around, looking at the big glossy project posters, munching cookies, and watching for TV news cameras (I avoid them). We all finally sit down to watch & listen to the project proponents' PowerPoint (R) presentation. Then it's Hearing Time. The movers & shakers are there to Hear the People.

And you know what? The people do get heard. With joy I heard one college prof read us a sonnet by Wordsworth! Not something you hear in governmental public hearings very often. The local civilian limpet on the belly of city government got up to speak (thus rendering this an official city event), and he actually offered a couple of really good ideas! I saw government types scribbling madly in their notebooks.

A few other people got up to express their varying degrees of delight or disgust with the project, and then She came forward. The one whose courage drops me to my knees in respect and awe. It's not always a She, sometimes it's a He. But it's always frightened nearly out of its wits by all the Important People in the room.

She walked up to the microphone, every line of her body screaming timidity, insecurity, and determination. She stood clutching her carefully typed statement, the paper shaking with her trembling hands. She addressed the Important People in a clear, if wavery, voice. She read every word of her statement, said Thank You, and sat down, having accomplished her act of democratic bravery.

Nearly every public hearing I've ever attended has one of these heros. I long to cry out, "Don't be afraid! Don't you know how important you are? Don't you know--without you and others like you, all these shiny coifs and Italian suits are *empty*? They MUST hear your voice, they MUST give your comments serious thought, it's the law. Don't you realize, you have in your hand the most powerful weapon the world has ever known?"

That's NOT exagerration.

You have in your hand the most powerful weapon the world has ever known. The American Vote.

Don't laugh. If you only knew how politicians quail and bureaucrats pale at the thought of all you voters out there, each with that awesome weapon at your disposal.

If the amount of defense mounted is a measure of the strength an adversary *thinks* you have, just look: all the money, all the image-polishers, all the spin-doctors, all the lobbyists, the statisticians, the think-tanks, the poll-takers, the PACs' dollars, the marketing guys, the speech writers, all the gargantuan machine that's evolved to grind the common person's wants and wishes under the iron treads of political expediency. Use logic: Would all that be necessary if American voters were as powerless as they feel? Think about it!

The Vote is your ultimate weapon, but you have others. The telephone, for example. Using the telephone you can get information about whatever law or proposed permit that concerns you. You can call the legislature or Congress and get a free copy of the law to study yourself. You can get information from your representative in the legislative body that passed the law, and from other representatives who voted either for or against it. You can get information from the agency that is tasked with executing the provisions of the law--I advise you NOT to go to the agency head. Go to the grunt who is on the front lines having to carry out the intent of the law. Don't let ANY of these people brush you off! Be polite but be relentless. If one person won't satisfy your questions, keep dialling until you find someone who will. In the process, if you're polite, and sincere, you may just stumble across a grunt who can become your conduit of information in the future.

Another weapon is that time-honored Letter. Letters to Senators, Congresspersons, Presidents, agency directors, and of course, don't forget Letters to the Editor. When you go through the paper to see your letter in the Letters to the Editor column, take time to check out the Public Notice section of your paper's classified ads. That's where notices of projects, requests for bids, and other governmental permitting type activities are posted. Read the Public Notices daily. When a project comes along that you feel strongly about, make those phone calls, take the information you get to the library, and read everything you can find about your project and the issues it entails. Take notes, and write up your opinions.

And go to the public hearing, clutching your statement, stand up before the microphone, and in a clear and proud voice, let them know what you think. You have nothing to feel timid or insecure about. You're doing your job here. That awesome weapon that looms invisibly behind you, supporting you, lets the fancy-suit types know that they'd better do theirs.

And, by the way? Thank you very, very much.

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