This isn’t how public hearings should be run

Pipeline meeting infringed on freedom of speech

This editorial appeared in The Des Moines Register on Dec. 22, 2015.

Most of us are familiar with Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting, “Freedom of Speech.”

It depicts a working-class American standing at a town hall meeting, voicing his opposition to a policy that others around him support. Based on Rockwell’s recollection of seeing his neighbor speak at a public hearing, the painting is a compelling visual representation of freedom of speech.

Contrast the imagery in Rockwell’s painting with the scene that took place Dec. 16 in the Wallace State Office Building’s public auditorium. The 150 citizens who attended the public meeting there were told by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources they couldn’t stand and address the group. If they wanted to speak on the issue at hand, the DNR said, they’d have to go to one side of the auditorium, sit at a desk that faced a wall, and speak into a recording device so their comments could later be transcribed into the public record.

This, of course, meant their comments couldn’t be heard by others in attendance, including the media. In fact, the DNR had set up two recording stations, to be used simultaneously, at opposite sides of the auditorium. Anyone lucky enough to be within earshot of one commentator would be unable to hear the other.

As one might expect, the people in attendance were not too happy with these arrangements. They had taken time out of their evening to participate in a public hearing and, as such, they fully expected they’d be able to hear the public. Some of them became angry and began shouting. One person had to be physically removed from the auditorium by state police. It was not exactly a Rockwell moment.

The people were there to register their support or, more likely, their opposition to the proposed Bakken pipeline, which would transport 570,000 barrels of oil per day from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, through South Dakota and across Iowa to southern Illinois.

Before the pipeline can be constructed, several hurdles have to be cleared. The DNR, for example, must approve an environmental permit for the pipeline to cross through publicly owned lands and waterways.

The project has generated a heated public debate, which influenced the decision by DNR Director Chuck Gipp, a former state lawmaker, to forgo the normal public hearing process in which people speak one at a time and address their comments to all those in attendance.

“What we wanted do with this public meeting was collect people’s actual input, versus having a public forum where you’re simply yelling your personal views out to somebody else,” Gipp explained. “Our decision (on the permit) has got to be made on public input, not on somebody grandstanding in front of people.”

Gipp pointed out that the DNR is not concerned with issues like eminent domain and the use of privately owned land, and is focused solely on the environmental impact on public property. “If you look at some of the comments made (about this project) from the get-go, we weren’t going to be part of that,” he said, citing “long, drawn-out comments about things that have nothing to do with this.”

Gipp’s method of restricting the manner in which people spoke was certainly efficient, but it also turned the concept of a public hearing on its head. Meetings like this aren’t intended to accommodate the desires of government agencies; they’re for the benefit of the citizenry.

People have a right not just to communicate privately with state agencies, but to stand and be heard at public meetings. What’s more, the citizens and reporters who are there to listen, and not to talk, have a right to hear what others are saying.

Yes, public hearings can be noisy, messy and time-consuming affairs. Some people will talk for too long, wander off topic, repeat themselves or become argumentative — all while questioning the actions of local, state and federal officials who sit directly before them. That is the beauty, and the burden, of unconstrained free speech. It’s a big part of what sets us apart from nations like Syria, Libya and North Korea, where unruly crowds and voices of dissent are handled much less diplomatically.

The Sierra Club has asked the DNR for a do-over of the Dec. 16 meeting. It’s a reasonable request that deserves to be granted. The state of Iowa has no business constructing “public meetings” in which the public can’t be heard.