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Meetings on tower should be two-way conversations

April 07, 2008|By TERRY HEADLEE

I wonder what would happen if, the next time a reader calls me with a complaint, I say: "Whoa there, I'm not taking any questions or listening to any comments."

If I've learned nothing else in this job, it is this: Readers want to be heard. I don't have to agree with readers all the time, but I can listen to them and answer their questions. You have to give people the opportunity to voice their opinions.

That's why I was astonished more than a week ago when officials held an informational meeting in southern Washington County. The officials told an audience of more than 60 residents that they were not taking any questions or allowing for any comments.

To put it bluntly: Residents were basically told to keep their mouths shut and listen.

The topic of the meeting was the placement of a 190-foot emergency communications tower proposed for a site off Keep Tryst Road in Pleasant Valley.

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You should know there are important public safety reasons for constructing this tower. It is one of several the county plans to build that will allow all police, fire and rescue agencies to communicate with each other in an emergency.

Even the critics don't disagree about the necessity of the towers. Location is the problem. They argue that not all alternatives - ones that aren't as detrimental to scenic views, tourism and property values - have been explored.

I'm not going to pick sides in this fight, but I want to raise this question: What is the big deal about holding a meeting where affected property owners can ask questions and make comments?

OK, sure, the county says it will take written responses until 4 p.m. Monday.

Well, whoopee.

While some folks would rather put their comments in writing, others would rather speak face-to-face so that follow-up questions can be asked and answered.

I've covered plenty of public hearings and informational meetings and I know the technical difference between the two. In a nutshell, citizens can talk at one and not at the other.

And, yes, this project has been on the table for more than two years, but most of the discussions have been during daytime hours - when most citizens are working.

I wonder what would have happened if one of the county officials at the March 26 evening meeting had said: "OK, we'll set aside some time here tonight for you to make your points. The meeting will last an hour longer, but it will be time well spent. We'll listen to what you have to say and take it under advisement, but in the end we may have to agree to disagree."

Hey, it was worth a shot.

My suggestion is that the Washington County Commissioners schedule a "public hearing" where questions from citizens will be welcomed.

It's not necessarily a meeting they will look forward to, but it's important to let citizens and taxpayers be heard. And frankly, they would be wise to give citizens a little more input before calling this a done deal.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail Co. He can be reached by phone at 301-733-5131 ext. 7594 or e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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