Why You Should Send Public Comment to your City

[Yours truly swearing on a couple different constitutions.]
For a little over a year now, I’ve been serving on the Saint Paul Planning Commission. There are twenty or so members of the commission, and we meet twice a month to go over site plans, zoning exceptions, and to guide city staff on long-range planning. We make recommendations to the city council, and most of the time they listen to us.

Most of the experience is a somewhat deliberative, somewhat careful study of different land use issues in Saint Paul. Most of the work is done in committee, and there are a lot of smart people on the Commission that care about Saint Paul and have good ideas about its future.

The most interesting part of the job, though, is the interaction with the public. Sometimes, contemplating a controversial proposal, we have a public hearing where anyone can come in and testify about some new zoning or planning issue. And on almost all of the documents we get each month, all the public comments (letters sent to the city) are included and quantified in the summary.

Believe it or not, city staff, local politicians, and volunteer commissioners like me actually notice and pay attention to comments from the public. And on almost every issue, there aren’t a whole lot of comments to be had. It means that a small group of people can have a large impact on these land use and planning decisions. Most of the time, these comments are dominated by people upset with traffic, parking, or urban density. It’s very rare to see a comment calling for more urban development in the city.
[Everything we look at has a summary of the public comments.]

The point here is that, even though it might seem stupid or trivial, it’s important to take a few minutes and send in an email comment when an interesting issue catches your eye. I’m loosely involved with a whole bunch of groups around the Twin Cities that are trying to change the conversation about urban design, groups like the city’s two bicycle coalitions, Streets.mn, or Transit for Liveable Communities. (For example, yesterday’s call to action about the bicycle infrastructure along Washington Avenue from the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.) In all of these cases, you’d be surprised at how much of an impact a few minutes from a few dozen people might make. There’s a big difference between a comment summary that says “6 letters received, 6 opposed” and one that has a bit more balance.

There are a lot of problems with the kinds of citizen participation we have city governments, and I’m not promising I’m going to read all the public comments I receive. And I don’t expect anyone to actually attend a public hearing or community meeting, unless you’ve got a screw loose or nothing better to do. But next time you see an opportunity to contact your local council member or city staff, take a few minutes and do it. You might not believe it, but it can make a difference.

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