By John McFerrin
Many decisions by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection either require or allow public participation. Typically, the Department announces what it is considering or what it wants to do and then sets up a procedure for receiving public comment.
Some of these are fated to leave the public frustrated. Sometimes, the Department has already made up its mind what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. The public can show up, say what it wants to say, etc., but the Department is just going through the motions, having already made up its mind.
Even when the Department was not just going through the motions, the procedures it used did not always lead to productive public comment or participation.
Now, the Department has started an effort to improve its procedures. It has published a draft of West Virginia Public Engagement Guidelines. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, and others are cheering them on, applauding their first steps, and urging them on to do more.
One of the problems that members of the public have had in the past is that commenters are often shuttled into separate rooms or to separate tables in one big room. In some situations, agency staff is only authorized to receive comments, not respond to questions or provide information. This leaves members of the public unable to hear what other people had to say. It also leaves them no better informed than they were when they got there.
The proposed guidelines move in the direction of more public meetings and question-and-answer sessions. This will give people a chance to hear what others have to say. It will give the public an opportunity to learn about the proposed project. If Department employees get to answer questions instead of just recording comments, they would have a chance to build trust.
The proposed guidelines also increase the use of virtual meetings or meetings with both an in-person and a remote option. When meetings that the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has been a part of in the past had a remote option, that option was beneficial. Our comments on the proposed guidelines reflected this.
The proposed Guidelines say repeatedly that flexibility is important and that the Department does not want to be rigid in its choices of meeting format, depending upon what is appropriate at the time. If the Department backslides into routinely deciding that the old, ineffective format is appropriate in most situations, the new guidelines will not make much difference. If, on the other hand, the Department is sincere in its desire to improve public comments, then its new proposed guidelines are a good first step.