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PD Editorial: Keeping a civil atmosphere at civic meetings

There's blame to be shared for the disruption that occurred at a Santa Rosa public hearing Monday night.

People came to discuss regional plans to ensure that the Bay Area grows in a way that reflects future lifestyles and has the least impact on the environment. What they got was chaos. Some critics of the plan were there with the intent to disrupt the meeting. And so they did — by shouting, interrupting speakers and exhibiting general boorish behavior. By the end, police were sitting in on some discussions to monitor behavior.

One observer noted that the only time there was some sense of order at the hearing at Finley Community Center was when Rohnert Park Mayor Jake Mackenzie led the group in saying the pledge of allegiance.

"It was a very unifying moment," said Kirsten Merrihew of Santa Rosa. "And as soon as it was over, it was chaos again."

Unfortunately, these disruptions have become a common occurrence at these hearings, which representatives of the Association of Bay Area Governments and Metropolitan Transportation Commission have been holding throughout the Bay Area. Their purpose is to get feedback on a master plan — one long needed — to coordinate transportation systems of the future with land-use plans for housing and other types of development.

This master plan, known as the One Bay Area initiative, is the child of SB 375, legislation that took effect in 2009 that seeks to reduce California's carbon footprint by aligning plans for transportation and land use.

It makes sense. And this is not a new concept. City-centered growth and transit-oriented development are principles this area has embraced for years, along with the need for urban growth boundaries and open space preservation.

The problem is that One Bay Area comes at a time when public resources are scarce and distrust of government, a la the tea party movement, is high. Many of those attending these meetings are fearful of losing local control over planning as well as taxpayer dollars spent on transportation.

Some are tea party members. Some are part of the "Agenda 21" faction, who believe that this planning process is part of a grand conspiracy that began with the adoption of a United Nation's resolution 20 years ago, one aimed at addressing climate change. Others are simply frustrated by a process in which they feel feedback on specifics is encouraged while general opposition to regional planning on this scale is not.

Planners need to ensure those representing these perspectives have a place at the meetings and have a chance to have their questions and concerns addressed. At the same time, critics don't have the right to control these sessions and lose their right to be heard when they make grandstanding their top priority. Organizers should have zero tolerance for such conduct, and if police need to be in attendance so be it.


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