It’s no secret that public participation in local government has waned over the years.
On most nights at local city and town halls, only a handful of members of the public – including local print journalists – are present as municipal officials do the people’s business.
Many factors have played a role in this trend. Most meetings occur on weekday evenings, and in an age when working people face ever-growing demands on their time and energy, it is difficult to commit the hours that civic involvement requires – particularly for parents of school-age children.
Most troublingly, some potential participants in the process have given in to apathy. Others have turned their focus to the goings-on at the state and national levels.
Periodically, however, a local issue catches the attention of the public. Often, word spreads among neighbors – and, increasingly, on social media – due to the efforts of a core group of concerns citizens. In these cases, residents are spurred to turn out at public meetings in force.
One such example has been seen of late in Cranston, where Carpionato Group’s plans for a sports-entertainment complex at the former Citizens Bank office site on Sockanosset Cross Road have drawn vocal opposition from a group known as the Garden City Alliance and others in the community.
Cranston’s Planning Commission held a hearing on the project – including its master plan submission and a zoning change needed for the proposal to proceed – as part of its Jan. 8 meeting. However, a hearing on another controversial project – the master plan submission for a solar energy facility off Natick Avenue – also appeared on the night’s agenda.
The solar project was taken up first, and the hearing included lengthy remarks from both its applicants and opponents. In the end, the hearing took more than three hours – and, in the end, a final decision on master plan approval was delayed until February.
It was not until after 11 p.m. that the hearing regarding the Topgolf plan and zoning got underway. By that time, the audience had dwindled significantly.
At a subsequent meeting, Duane Clinker of the Cranston Action Network, said a public hearing that begins so late at night “is not by any reasonable measure a public hearing.”
“It simply doesn’t satisfy the process … You simply, in a working community on a working night, cannot begin a public hearing at 10:30 at night,” he added.
In Warwick, City Council meetings rarely start at 7 p.m. as scheduled because of lengthy committee hearings that start at 5 p.m. It’s no wonder the public finds the process frustrating.
We understand that the members of municipal boards, committees and commissions are, by and large, working people themselves. They are charged with considering a vast amount information and balancing a range of factors in their decision-making.
We must, however, agree with the concerns that have been raised. We urge officials in all our communities to take steps to ensure the scheduling and timing of public meetings and hearings is done in the spirit of openness and accessibility.
We also strongly encourage local leaders to place an emphasis on making information as easily available as possible. That includes video and audio recordings – and, ideally, live streaming – of municipal meetings, as well as documentation related to the issues being discussed.
Weighty debates produce the best results when the most voices are heard and when the parties involved are as informed as possible. Government, in turn, works best when it has the public’s attention and trust.