Memo to Oregon legislators: if you invite the public to testify at a hearing, be willing to hear them. Especially if they've driven several hours to attend an 8:00 am session on SB 30, a bill that would protect the fragile Metolius River basin from two large destination resorts.
That's what happened last Thursday. The public got stiffed, while government officials and real estate developers got to talk…and talk…and talk some more.
I was there, one of the non-testifiers. Like several dozen other people who wanted a couple of minutes in front of the Education and General Government Committee, chaired by Sen. Vicki Walker, to voice their support of SB 30.
As the Bend Bulletin reported, the Committee hearing was horribly unbalanced:
The lion's share of the microphone time Thursday in front of the Senate Education and General Government Committee was devoted to critics of the Senate bill. These included Jefferson County and Madras officials - who said the legislation would trample on a legal land use process - and the developers of the two proposed resorts that could be in jeopardy.
Here's how the "public hearing" (what a joke of a name) went down. First, Sen. Ben Westlund and Sen. Betsy Johnson talked about why SB 30 was so important. Both were eloquent.
Westlund said, "The only question is, 'Do you want to protect this very special place?'" And, "This is Oregon, and if there is one place that defines us, it is the Metolius."
Johnson, whose family has had close ties with the river since 1904—and donated for public access the land around the head of the Metolius—started to cry as soon as she began speaking. She said she was thinking of her deceased mother and the profound connection they both had with the river.
"I plead guilty to an emotional response to the bill," Johnson said. Me too. I was almost in tears by the time she finished. My wife and I love the Metolius also, being part owners of a forest service cabin on the river.
That 10-minute or so part of the hearing was fine. But then began the parade of the "suits."
Staff from the state Water Resources Department talked at length about the hydrology of central Oregon. Rep. John Dallum talked at length about why he'd removed his name as a sponsor of SB 30. Jefferson County officials talked at length about how the proposed destination resorts would bring gobs of much-needed property tax revenue to their strapped budget.
The developers of the Colson and Dutch Pacific parcels talked at length about how utterly peachy-keen it would be to have 10,000 + acres devoted to homes, golf courses, and other destination resort amenities in or near the fragile Metolius basin, officially designated as a Wild and Scenic River.
Then a rancher talked at length about why SB 30 didn't make sense. All of the testimony so far had been invited. No one who had signed up to speak as a member of the public had gotten to say a single word, even though those in favor of SB 30 had (correctly) sent out notices urging people to come and testify, since this was a public hearing on the bill.
Except, oops, Chairwoman Walker looks at the clock on the wall and says, "We have to leave for a floor session at 10:15. We won't be able to hear those of you who signed up to testify, aside from one group."
So at 10:07, two hours and seven minutes into the two hour and fifteen minute hearing (about twenty minutes of which was devoted to an unrelated bill), three guys from Friends of the Metolius and Central Oregon Landwatch rush to sit down at the microphone table. The first two quickly say that they're yielding their time to the third, Gregory McClaren, who gets a whole five minutes to express support for SB 30 and opposition to the destination resorts.
And that's it. Walker had said that it was committee policy to let people who'd driven over 100 miles testify first. However, that seemed to only apply to opponents of SB 30. A man sitting across the aisle from me raised his hand and said, "I've come over 100 miles. Will I get a chance to say anything?"
No, Walker told him, you won't. But she said there would be another hearing on the bill, so everybody who drove several hours or more to have a couple of minutes in front of the committee microphone could do it again another time.
I was frosted. And I only came from south Salem, twenty-five minutes away. The day before, Laurel and I had spent seven hours in a Marion County Board of Commissioners appeal hearing on a Measure 37 subdivision that we and our neighbors are fighting.
The four days previous we'd spent countless additional hours preparing for the hearing. There were lots of other things I would have preferred to do than sit in a legislative hearing room for another two hours, waiting to testify in favor of SB 30, only to find out that the Education and General Government Committee clearly never intended to allow the public to have the opportunity to do that.
Sen. Walker is a sharp legislator. I liked her style, and I like her politics, by and large. But I sure didn't like how she allocated almost all of the hearing time to opponents of SB 30. Per usual in hearings of this sort, those who got by far the most microphone access were being paid to attend the session (public officials and destination resort consultants).
The members of the public who took a day off (or at least, a morning) at their own expense to testify in support of SB 30 were ignored, aside from the one representative of Central Oregon Landwatch. That's a crappy way to run a public hearing.
Legislators, how would you feel if you got an invitation to a dinner party, drove several hours to get there, and then were told by the hostess, "Oh, I'm sorry. We don't have enough room at the table and have decided that it's more important to let other people eat. Come back next week."
That's exactly what happened at the state capitol on Thursday. Sen. Walker and her committee treated the invited public shabbily.
Why have a public hearing if you don't intend to hear the public? I'm going to send a link to this blog post to every member of the committee. I've asked a good question. I'll share any answers I receive in the "comments" section.
[SB 30 is much-needed. Click on this Save the Metolius web page and use the email links to express your support for the legislation.]