Thursday, December 13, 2012

For citizen objectors, what it is like to testify at a county commission zoning hearing ... by gimleteye

What is it like to testify at the county commission as a citizen objector to a zoning decision? Good question. First, understand that zoning -- the process of assigning specific parcels of property to designated uses -- is the bread and butter of local elected officials. Zoning, or re-zoning as the case may often be, is a precondition of development, and since development is the only native industry in South Florida, governmental processes involving zoning are bound by decades of precedent and powerful, vested interests including the largest law firms in the state.

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.


Geniusofdespair said...

This is spot on. If not for the standing going there provides, there would be no point in participating in the public charade. The best part is seeing some of the commissioners recite what the lobbyists told them to say.

Your description of how you feel is Exactly how I feel at a Commission meeting.

Anonymous said...

After the excruciatingly painful experience at the commission, I always try to reward myself with lunch at El Cacique across from the library steps on Flagler. Bonus reward today after the FPL hearing: the friends of the library are having a book sale.

Anonymous said...

You can watch the festivities on the Government Channel on TV. Don't miss it.

Anonymous said...

This is another great article and so true!

It would be great to see students in our local high schools pick a zoning application near them and attend a BCC meeting.

Anonymous said...

Here's the link to watch on your computers:

The side bar is the agenda. You should be able to click the link on that page for the zoning information. The comments from the Department of the Interior regarding Biscayne National Park should have put a period at the end of this, but hey, it's Miami!

Anonymous said...

He nailed it again.
The indifference which one is subject to when speaking is disrespectful.
Welcome to the new political landscape where the public is ignored and shunned while exercising their first amendment right.

Anonymous said...

Right you are! Despite the indifference shown by commissioners and despite being out-gunned by lobbyists it remains important to stand up and say something. Every now and then you will be heard. It also demonstrates that people do care and are watching. I think every high school student and college student should go - in person - to a city council, BCC or CZAB hearing to get a taste of it. Who knows, you may even get hooked.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, for what you do.

Anonymous said...

I had a feeling when Ednumson was trying to defer the meeting due to lack of quorum there would be hanky panky at some point. Which Commissioners were there and who left to break quorum? What a crock of BS. Of course, this won't be re advertised so the public won't know unless you were watching the meeting today. It's amazing that somehow they had a quorum until Richard Grosso was allotted full time to speak on behalf of so many. This sucks but is so Banana Republic BCC.

Anonymous said...

For sure, it gives FPL more time to lobby. Staff raised tons of serious questions, and FPL is going to have to overcome them all, because apparently this was too hot an issue for the majority to simply fold (although it's not like they haven't rolled over for FPL before!). Yes it WAS interesting and a complete waste of time for those who dedicated an entire day to traveling etc. to Miami for the meeting. Maybe that was the point. The war of attrition.

Anonymous said...

In the war of attrition, only one side is getting handsomly paid. FPL. Thank you Florida GOP legislature for that.

Anonymous said...

It would surprise me that civics is even taught in our schools. FCAT has dumb down the kids so much. This is a result. Great idea to have our kids take on a cause and attend the BCC MEETINGS. This ia a wonderful article. Thank you Gime, Love this article.

Anonymous said...

So much corruption. So sad. Thank you to all the civic activists who show up and speak.

Mensa said...

You do not always lose. Many years ago I was up against the biggest legal firm on a matter where they represented the builder and I the public in the neighborhood. Despite all that was done to beat me I ended up wining. I will never forget that experience. It told me that if you have much that is right on your side sometimes you win It is not easy.

Anonymous said...

So much corruption. So sad. Thank you to all the civic activists who show up and speak.It will prove invaluable in the long haul, which is what this type of thing is all about.

Thank you for your effort.