Public Involvement Leads To Better Decisions On Municipal And Utility Projects

Public involvement in big decisions is nothing to fear. In fact, it typically leads to better decisions, better projects and better outcomes.

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I once heard a mining company executive, talking about a controversial project proposed in an environmentally sensitive area, say, “There is no way we are going to let people tell us how to design this mine.”

What I thought but didn’t say was, “And that may be the reason you never get to build it.” The executive’s thinking was, essentially, “We are a responsible company. We have the engineers, the environmental data, the experience. We know best.”

And in a strictly technical sense, that was surely true. Unfortunately, major projects that affect people and communities don’t get decided solely on technical merit. Aesthetic concerns come into play. Odors and noise can become issues. And sometimes people’s fears about effects on their lives and the environment have to be addressed, even though they may seem overblown or outright illogical.

If you invalidate people’s genuinely held concerns, you risk backlash. That can lead to protests. Angry outbursts in public hearings. Attacks in traditional and social media. Lawsuits. Delays. On the other hand, if you invite people in and address their issues as part of project design, you’re more likely to find public opinion aligning in your favor. You may still have opponents, but they’ll tend to be isolated and low on credibility.

Lessons learned

People in the public sector, and in the water professions especially, tend to understand this at least on some level. Yet still there are those who fear public input and would prefer to develop plans behind the scenes. The degree of openness to comments and ideas varies from community to community and project to project. This month’s “In My Words” feature describes how leaders in Yankton, S.D., opened doors wide to public comment on a new water treatment plant project and got an extremely positive result.

My own experience verifies the value of reaching out to the public. A clean-water district had established a land application program for biosolids. It was technically sound and complied with all regulations. It was highly beneficial to farmers. But initially the district’s approach was simply to haul liquid material into the countryside in tank trucks and apply it on the surface — without talking to local leaders or residents near the farm fields.

Concerns arose about odors and of aerosols drifting on the wind. Big trucks rumbled down town roads past subdivisions. People saw black stuff being applied and didn’t know what it was or what it contained.

When they found out it had heavy metals like lead and cadmium (albeit in traces), they rebelled. Townships began passing ordinances against biosolids. The district had to look farther and farther out, in less populated areas, to find farms. Even then, controversy soon followed. The program was in real danger of being shut down.

Turning a corner

I worked on a public participation program that helped correct the situation. The district switched to subsurface injection, a cleaner operation. Truck routing procedures were refined. A citizens’ advisory committee studied up on biosolids, learned about the district’s program and offered ideas on how to make it better. The district staff began making annual reports to town boards in communities where farms received biosolids.

Local officials’ and residents’ concerns dissipated, sooner than many of us imagined. In essence, things that should have been done on the front end to bring the public in still worked on the back end. The result was a better program — much better than it ever would have been without the involvement of those directly and indirectly affected.

The lesson, of course, is that responsible public agencies proposing sound and necessary projects have nothing to fear from public participation. What they should fear are the consequences of trying to design projects in isolation, behind closed doors. People locked out of decisions that affect them can become incredibly powerful enemies. People welcomed, informed and listened to can become incredibly valuable allies.

Water and wastewater agencies and their customers and stakeholders are really on the same team. Both want the same basic things: quality service at reasonable cost. Teamwork on important projects can only help bring that about.



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