SEPTA/AMS Hearing Participation Update

Air Management Services (AMS) is holding a virtual public hearing on July 27, 2023.  While planning for this event, hopefully in collaboration with AMS, let’s use it a case study that provides an opportunity to identify best practices for the conduct of and participation in such hearings.

A best practice for governmental agencies is to meet their citizens where they live when providing opportunities for meaningful public participation in decision making processes.

The onset of the pandemic in March 2021 led to accelerated adoption of teleconferencing technologies.  The general public is now familiar with online platforms.  However, different segments of the population use teleconferencing for social and professional purposes following cultural norms appropriate for the participants.  So, universal best practices don’t exist.

In my experience, the EJ community is most familiar and comfortable using Zoom.  Some folks also use Google Meet and Skype.  Institutions, on the other hand are more likely to use Microsoft Teams or Cisco WebEx.  I think it would be preferable for AMS to hold the virtual hearing on Zoom.

Folks in the EJ community are familiar with Chat, Screen Sharing, Whiteboard, Breakout Rooms, Recording, and Reaction features.  They prefer participating in a “meeting” room to attending a “webinar” presentation.  Therefore, I suggest AMS use a meeting rather than webinar format.

If AMS needs to conduct the hearing as a Microsoft Teams webinar instead of a Zoom meeting, I recommend that they explain the reason.  For example, the City may mandate the use of Teams (since many governmental units standardize their technologies) and a webinar platform may be necessary to accommodate the number of prospective attendees.  Folks will appreciate and accept such explanation.

People want to participate in a setting that promotes a conversation in which people talk with each other rather than a performative ritual in which people talk at each other.  Within the framing of the EPA “Participation Spectrum,” engagement should be characterized as “sharing in consultation” instead of merely “providing and receiving information.”

People want to be treated with dignity and respect.  They are sensitive to being patronized or being treated discourteously.  Trust needs to be earned and maintained; it must be mutual; it cannot be assumed.  In the specific case of the hearing on July 27, trust doesn’t exist and needs to be established.  The hearing revisits the contentious process for issuance of the air permit to build and operate the power plant at SEPTA’s Roberts Complex.  This “do-over” provides an opportunity to gain the mutual trust necessary for repairing the relationship between the public and AMS as well as with SEPTA.

People want to know who is in the “room.”  Therefore, AMS should fully activate the “Participants” functionality.  Among the Participants, AMS staff and City officials should be identified by name and title, so the public will know who they are whether or not they speak.  SEPTA officials should also be identified.  Members of the public should have the option of identifying themselves as affiliated with their organization(s).

People want the Chat feature to be fully functional.  Folks like Chat.  Friends like to send private messages to each other – a shout-out “hello” to somebody they recognize but don’t see frequently, a running commentary on the proceedings, conduct a side conversation.  Chat is empowering.  It provides a feeling of autonomy and a means for immediate public expression. Restricting Chat is insulting, repressive, resented.

Chat is a versatile way the convey and exchange information.  AMS should provide links in the Chat for pertinent information such as links to the AMS web page at phila.gov.  Participants can share links and data with AMS and each other.  Time should be provided at the end of the hearing for people to use the “Save Chat” feature. 

AMS should monitor the Chat and delete any comment that is out of bounds (because it includes profanity or defames an individual).  AMS should advise Participants that the Chat is being monitored.  But, AMS should not issue a warning about behavior in the Chat; anticipation of misbehavior will be perceived as patronizing and disrespectful.  A warning would indicate mistrust and an insulting assumption of mutual hostility.

AMS should engage with the Participants rather than passively receive comments that they will process later.  For example, if a resident of Nicetown relates a personal story of death and disease, I would expect the AMS host to respond with an expression of condolences or concern before moving on.  Of course, AMS should not engage in debate or act in any way that would violate the deliberative processes for AMS permit application review or for AMS review and response to public comments.  However, asking a clarifying question of a speaker would indicate that AMS is attentive to the testimony being received.

To be meaningful, public participation must begin at the beginning and be continuous.  The community should engage with AMS to assure that the virtual public hearing employs best practices.  We need to collaborate with AMS to establish the way technology will be employed on July 27.

Do you agree with my observations and suggestions?  What other issues should we raise about the conduct of the hearing?  

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