Road designers defend public hearing policy
By Randall Savage
The Macon Telegraph
Having a public hearing where people are allowed to step up to a microphone and discuss their concerns about the road improvement program creates a forum for "a vocal few and silent majority," said Tommy Barnes, office manager for Moreland Altobelli & Associates.
Barnes made the remarks Monday during a meeting of the Macon-Bibb County Road Program's executive committee. He was responding to City Council President Willie Hill, a committee member, who wanted to soften recent criticism of Moreland Altobelli's public hearing format.
Moreland-Altobelli is the engineering firm hired to direct the $300 million road program. Because federal law requires public hearings on road projects, the firm holds hearings. But attendees are not allowed to sit as a group and make comments to the road builders.
Instead, they're told to sit at one of several tables in the hearing room and write questions and comments on prepared forms. There's also a court reporter present who'll take comments from attendees, providing they know the reporter is there.
That's the way the state Department of Transportation has conducted public hearings for at least 15 years, Barnes said. Transportation departments in a few other states use the same procedure, he said.
Although Barnes defended the format, several others - including Macon attorney Jim Carson and architect Eugene Dunwody Sr. - said it helps "divide and conquer" those who would otherwise band together in opposition.
"You're not communicating on a one-on-one basis," Dunwody said. "You think that's good. But it's bad."
Just because transportation departments use silent hearings doesn't make it right, Dunwody said. It's a farce for local officials to use that to abate public discussion at public hearings, he said.
The Moreland Altobelli format "really does divide and conquer, although it may not be the intention," Carson said. "People don't know what others are talking about."
The format has been under attack almost since the road program began.
The attacks resumed last week when City Councilwoman Thelma Dillard said Moreland Altobelli breeds contempt and mistrust when the firm conducts public hearings where people are not allowed to discuss their concerns.
Despite the renewed criticism, the executive committee agreed to continue using the present format.
Tom Moreland, part-owner of Moreland Altobelli, said people will be allowed to make comments at some future public hearings.
Elliott Dunwody III, an architect, said it would be a good idea if Moreland Altobelli let people have input at one of the several public hearings that are held on each project.