MARC CHASE: NIRPC should sharpen listening skills

2013-11-21T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: NIRPC should sharpen listening skillsMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
November 21, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Last week, I wondered if a particular region government planning agency's board would give any weight to the concerns of south Lake County constituents regarding the proposed Illiana Expressway.

Going forward, some folks are wondering if the agency plans to truly listen to anyone at all.

To be sure, there are some conscientious leaders on the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, a group charged with forming transportation planning and policy for the region. But some of NIRPC's decisions lately to curtail public comment -- and make certain members of the public feel most unwelcome at public meetings -- should leave us all puzzled.

As 2013 wanes, whomever ascends to the NIRPC chairmanship in 2014 needs to consider a more public-friendly approach.

The most recent example came last month when Crown Point Mayor David Uran, who chairs NIRPC, chose to limit the public comment section of the commission's meetings to topics contained on the agenda. Traditionally, public comment sections -- in meetings ranging from NIRPC to city and town councils -- are a forum through which constituents share views or voice grievances.

Uran told The Times he adopted the rule to prevent a meeting takeover, or "filibuster" in his words, of NIRPC business by certain members of the public, including the often vocal and sometimes abrasive leaders of local disability advocacy group, Everybody Counts.

The anti-filibuster rule followed an even more misguided move earlier this summer to call in Portage police to stare down several wheelchair-using, walker-using, elderly and blind folks who carried signs of protest into a NIRPC meeting -- but did so in an orderly, non-disruptive fashion, by the accounts I've heard.

The logic of Uran, who in many ways has done good things for his city, is flawed where the public comment decision is concerned.

Good policy dictates public comment periods be open to anyone who wants to civilly take the floor and respectfully communicate an issue or concern -- and not just an issue drafted by elected leaders. Good leaders listen.

Periods of public comment often occur at the end of a meeting, after agenda items already are discussed or acted upon. That makes it difficult for any one person to "filibuster" during the business portion of a meeting.

Many public boards, councils and commissions adopt time limits into their rules, limiting each public comment to a set number of minutes. Adhering to such rules prevents the hijacking of a meeting without restricting civil discourse.

Much of the motivation behind NIRPC's recent attitude toward the region's vocal disabled community seems to be based on personality -- namely that of Everybody Counts Director Teresa Torres. Some region public officials view Torres as an abrasive malcontent in her quest for accessibility.

But here's another important lesson Uran and other NIRPC officials should learn: Putting up walls, even figurative ones, won't silence determined folks like Torres. It will only make them scream louder.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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