Attending a zoning meeting at the county or city commission should be a requirement of civics class in high school: no student should graduate without attending, if not testifying directly, at one such meeting.
I've been doing this a long time. By my counting, nearly twenty years. Though truth be told, less and less these days.
Attending public meetings -- held by elected officials -- is an important way to participate in and to judge the quality of democracy. At the Miami Dade County Commission, it is laid bare.
If you are a citizen objector, you will see that process serves the people and interests who pay for elections.
With experience, testifying before the county commission gets better and worse. It gets better, because the first times you go to the well, with the platform and microphone and cameras, with the commissioners sitting high up on the dais looking down at you, it is easy to be flustered.
The lawyers and consultants are practiced. Their skills are honed and presentations are carefully constructed and rehearsed, supported by considerable financial investments.
For citizen objectors, there is a quality of tentative and tremulous anticipation. One can easily get lost, mid-sentence or put off by the indifference of commissioners who one always knew couldn't care less but now, behave exactly that way while one speaks.
For me, testifying at the county commission is an out of body experience. After waiting for hours, my name is called. Mis-prounounced. Whatever. I walk down the carpeted stairs to the well and to the speaking platform. And as I look to the dais, and the assembled commissioners in various states of attention -- on cell phones, talking to an aide, fiddling with papers, waving to a friend in the crowd, or perhaps waiting for me to begin, part of me drifts up to the ceiling to look down.
The votes on most zoning decisions have already been decided by the lobbyist corps. Citizens who take hours, even the whole day, out of work or their lives otherwise to make unpaid visits to the county commission must know that. Sometimes one appears to maintain the legal purpose of standing, in order to participate in future legal challenges. That is part of the "out of body experience": everyone knows, in the words of balladeer Leonard Cohen, the fix is in.
The bigger the decision, the more county commissioners can hide that fact in the tall weeds of "complexity". Whether they agree with staff recommendations or not, what they do best is kick the can down the road. So, "conditions" are attached to approvals -- unpopular as the case often is -- , and later those "conditions" or "covenants" are amended or broken.
So all the notes one has written and studying for one's three minutes of persuasion have very little chance of shifting a predetermined outcome. The positive benefit, if a citizen is testifying, is that after a few times you rely less on what notes you've written or typed and more on getting across a few key points and trying to make eye contact, as if to make sure they are listening even if your words don't penetrate.
The knowledge one gains with experience of testifying as a citizen objector to a zoning decision shows that participating in "democracy" is really Kabuki theater. That's the form of Japanese performance characterized by highly stylized actors playing well known stereotypes. The value is not the story but in the performance and the execution of well-known roles.
This morning the county commission is taking up the matter of a zoning hearing to decide on an "unusual use permit" for Florida Power and Light to build two new nuclear reactors. It is worth a trip to the well, to throw my two cents up against FPL's $20 billion. That's democracy.