Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Public Meetings Promote Democratic Process

June 30, 2003

How do communities resolve conflict on a local level without creating ill-will and controversy? One good test is in the quality of interactions between community leaders and constituents in public meetings.

Divisive issues tear community cohesiveness. For the most part, leadership rests in the hands of a few active, community-minded individuals who donate hours and hours of service. Then an issue comes along that threatens major change to community institutions such as the church, school, governance or medical services.

The opposition materializes. People split into opposite camps. Unfortunately, issues become personalized. Animosity and ill will prevail. Public hearings turn divisive and ugly. The hot rhetoric burns the ears. After a meeting, supporters split into small groups and factions. They rehash what was said and how it was done.

The controversy and feelings continue well past public votes and decisions. Former friends don't speak. Public leaders who took strong stands feel the wrath of the defeated with social snubs and economic boycotts. Memories are long. The impact sometimes lasts for years.

How to prevent political fallout? Does it have to be this way? Whatever happened to civilized discourse? Can't people agree to disagree without letting strong emotion get in the way of friendliness and courtesy?

How politically hot topics are handled has a great deal to do with community harmony and cohesiveness. Here are some tips on how communities can avoid the fallout of explosive and corrosive politics.

1. Start early. Leaders who foresee a change coming should get the community dialogue started so that there is plenty of time to include everyone and to work through the issue. When the warning signs first appear on the horizon, it is time to act.

2. Include everyone. The public has trusted their representatives - elected leaders, community boards, volunteers, etc. - to carry out the business of the community.

However, with some issues, it is not business as usual. The democratic process needs to open up and allow ordinary citizens to take part in the decision-making process. It is time for representatives to stop and really listen to what people are saying. They need to understand what their anger, fear and dissent are all about.

People from all sides need to be heard. They need to speak their anger first, but in a controlled setting. Then the process of acceptance and problem-solving can begin. The decision hasn’t been made and compromises are still possible. Each side needs to give a little to get what it wants.

3. Public meetings. Having a public hearing is often counter-productive. The existing power structure, the meeting room and large gatherings all invite ranting, raving, and grandstanding by vocal leaders of the opposition who feel shut out.

If a public hearing format is chosen, the meeting should be directed by a strong but fair moderator who isn't identified with one side or the other. He or she should not be perceived as having his or her own agenda or "extra baggage" from past conflicts.

Some leaders need to be professional or big enough to stand aside if necessary. A neutral site may be desirable.

The moderator needs to keep the meeting on track. The moderator must keep control but be sensitive to preserving the respect and dignity of all the participants. There is an art to cutting people off without chopping them off.

There should be strict rules and time limits to allow everyone to have his or her say. The initial round of comments needs to be brief. Shouting and emotional outbursts are not allowed. Written statements or questions also defuse emotion.

People need time to digest and evaluate what they have heard. The meeting should be an hour to an hour-and-a-half in length. Long three-hour meetings play into the hands of the diehards while the public gets frustrated and leaves.

4. Other formats for public meetings and involvement. Panels work well when well-chosen representatives are given fair and equal time to articulate their positions. Then the public is invited to ask questions or react to the discussion. Rules about time and courtesy help keep the process fair and productive.

A small task force with fair representation from concerned groups can help spell out choices to the governing body. Though one alternative may be preferable to the others, all alternatives should be listed for consideration.

A small group process is desirable for doing political work. How the meeting is set up is a key to success. Discussion groups with as many as 12 to 15 people to as few as four or five are ideal. Tables should be round or rectangular to help discussion. Participants should be split up so they can't stay in their factions. Small groups help people discover what they have in common.

Strong discussion leaders insure participation and summarize group conclusions. Pre-planned group tasks and questions to consider help focus group discussion.

Good meetings make a difference. Inclusiveness, basic respect and a democratic process that promote a fair hearing of ideas defuse anger and help community members accept the political process regardless of which way decisions might go. Meetings that seem to be a sham and irrelevant to genuine input inflame the public and invite controversy.