Public meetings are for the public that means you and me. At a public meeting, you can learn about issues that matter to you and voice your opinion.
When you read the words “public meeting” in the title of this post, what was your first reaction? Was it something along the lines of “After attending meetings all day at work, the last thing I want to do on my own time is to attend another meeting?” Maybe you thought, “I do not have time to go to a public meeting because I need to get dinner on the table.” or “I need to help my kids with their homework.” or “I need to finish a project for my boss.”
Maybe you worried about finding a babysitter or a way to get to the meeting, work or school scheduling conflicts, feeling uncomfortable speaking in public, or you just hate meetings.
These are all valid reasons for not attending public meetings. However, chances are there will be a meeting sometime, somewhere, about a topic that matters to you that can go to, if you chose to.
I posit that the hardest barrier to overcome might be apathy; the belief that someone else will do it or that your voice does not matter. You will never know unless you show up. You do not need to commit to attending every water district board, county supervisor, or planning commission meeting for the whole year, just make a commitment to yourself to attend one meeting.
Your experience at the public meeting you choose to attend may surprise you, in a good way.
To illustrate the above point, in this post I will describe my encounter with the U.S. federal government at a public meeting about potential wind farms off the California Central Coast where I live.
California Offshore Wind Planning Informational Forum
When I saw a public meeting notice in the San Luis Obispo Tribune that there would be a forum about offshore wind farms on December 13, 2018, I was eager to attend because I have a strong interest in renewable energy, especially wind and solar. This would be my first federal government public meeting. My spouse agreed to go with me.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was hosting the meeting at the historic Monday Club building in San Luis Obispo, CA. The BOEM is the division of the U.S. Department of the Interior that is responsible for overseeing offshore energy development including oil, gas, and wind and doing it in an environmentally and economically responsible way.
At the time of the meeting, Ryan Zinke was the Secretary of the Interior (he would resign just days later) and his mission seemed to be destroying public lands, waters, and the oceans for the benefit of the fossil fuel and mining industries. I wondered what possible good the BOEM could be up to with a boss like Zinke.
We arrived at the Monday Club and joined a slow-moving line of people filing into the building.
I noticed a woman wearing a name badge standing on the lawn greeting people in line. When we reached her, I asked her if she was with the BOEM. She answered affirmatively but seemed a little wary as if she was expecting me to say something anti-BOEM. I told her I support offshore wind energy and that I was happy to meet a woman scientist. She smiled and said, “You will meet more women scientists inside” (we did).
Once we made it through the double doors, I realized why the line was so slow. Each person was required to sign a meeting register in the vestibule before entering the main meeting room.
It was loud and hot inside. On the left, a large projection screen was hanging down with a small number of chairs set up in rows in front of it. To the right, people standing behind folding tables were talking with members of the public while gesturing at display boards and maps and handing out printed materials.
After receiving of a map of the information stations at the welcome table, we talked with a woman about the BOEM leasing process and picked up a copy of A Citizen’s Guide to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Renewable Energy Authorization Process.
Next, we discussed BOEM environmental studies with another woman and received a list of BOEM studies related to offshore wind farms.
There was a pause in the action when the woman we met outside came inside and introduced herself as Jean Thurston. She gave us a 15-minute slide presentation explaining that if approved, wind turbines would not appear off our coastline for eight or nine years.
Jean pointed out the room next door that was set up for people to make public comments online or on paper. She reinforced that this meeting was to inform the public and gather public input.
After the presentation, we decided to go outside to cool off.
We Meet a Reporter
Outside the cold air felt wonderful. We spotted a young woman and said hello. She said her name was Kaytlyn Leslie and that she was a reporter for the SLO Tribune. I asked her if she had written the article I had seen in the paper. She acknowledged that she had and I thanked her.
Kaytlyn asked us if we would like to be interviewed. Without thinking about how shy and introverted I am, I immediately grabbed the opportunity and said yes. She asked us some questions and recorded our answers on her smartphone.
You cannot imagine my amazement when two days later I spotted a piece in the Tribune by Kaytlyn in which she had quoted me. I had previously submitted two letters to the editor on the topic; neither was printed, so I felt somehow redeemed.
Back at the Meeting
Cooled off we went back inside and listened to an animated man from the Department of Defense talk about Navy weapons testing as he showed us a map of the wind farm areas.
The California Energy Commission representative seemed more interested in chatting with his colleague than us so we checked out the Data Basin program at the next table. This is a tool for citizen scientists and other interested parties to map things like fishing areas or migratory bird paths.
That was the end of the information stations. We decided to forgo the public comment room and make our comments online at home so we put our coats back on and left the building.
A Surprising Thing Occurred at the Meeting
This may sound ridiculous but the most important thing I discovered at the public meeting is that federal government agency employees are people, too. Each person that we spoke with seemed generally interested in sharing information, engaging in conversation, and answering questions.
I came away with a new perspective. Many, if not most, federal government agency employees are probably good at their jobs and care about what they do. Who knows, maybe the people at the BOEM breathed a sigh of relief when Zinke resigned.
If we had not gone to the public meeting, I would still have learned about the wind farm projects from other sources, but I would have missed the opportunity to meet and talk with the actual people responsible for managing offshore wind energy development in the ocean waters off the coast of my town.
Pick Your Own Public Meeting
Now, it is your turn to give public meetings a whirl. Find a public meeting about an issue or cause that matters to you and then go to the meeting.
For example, attend a school board meeting to support integrating Meatless Mondays into the lunch program and your child’s school. At a city council meeting, advocate for more electric vehicle charging stations in municipal parking garages. Go to a town hall meeting to voice your concern about oil and gas exploration endangering your region’s drinking water supply and ask your elected official what she or he is doing to protect your water.
Give yourself extra credit if you attend a public meeting and take an additional action like speaking during the public comment period, signing up for email notifications, talking with other people attending the meeting, filling out a survey, or putting the next meeting on your calendar.
Earlier in this post, I admitted that I had never been to a public meeting put on by the federal government (at least that I remember). Just like you, I have my own reasons for not having done it sooner. I overcame my inertia and you can, too.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”Margaret Mead
Featured Image at Top: Crowd of community members – photo credit iStock/makyzz
- Coastal Cleanup Day – Picking up Litter is Empowering
- Find it in the Federal Register – Government Transparency
- Make Your Voice Heard on Regulations.gov
- Rise for Climate Wherever You Are on September 8, 2018
- San Luis Obispo 2019 Women’s March
- Voting is an Environmental Act
- Wind Energy and the Environment
- Your Community Parks, Open Spaces, and Gardens Need You
- Bureau of Ocean Energy Management – California Activities
- Bureau of Ocean Energy Management California Offshore Wind Energy Planning Process – Presentation, 12/13/18
- Commercial Leasing for Wind Power Development on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Offshore California-Call for Information and Nominations (Call) – U.S. Federal Register, 10/19/18