MassResistance calls for a citizens' "Bill of Rights" regarding public hearings in the State House.
The average citizen is too often treated with disrespect and condescension.
From time to time there are bills before the Legislature that are of great interest to many members of the public. An effective way for regular citizens to educate and communicate with legislators who are working with these bills is to attend public hearings and testify before a legislative committee.
But in practice, people take time off from their jobs and families to come to the State House in downtown Boston, pay for parking, and often wait in a poorly ventilated room for several hours for the chance to speak for three minutes while various legislators, "celebrities", and others go to the head of the line. And there have been many situations of rudeness and bias against members of the public who strongly support positions that committee members disagree with. Too many state legislators seem to have forgotten the reasons for "public" hearings. And their attitude seems to be that hearings should be run for the convenience of the legislators, not the public.
Thus we are presenting this on behalf of citizens across the Commonwealth to the Massachusetts Legislature:
Citizens' Bill of Rights regarding public hearings at the State House:
1. Give reasonable public notice of the hearing date and the bills to be heard.
Sometimes the public only knows about hearings a day or so before they happen, by reading the State House website. And rarely is there a list of the bills to be considered. Giving the public two weeks notice, posted on the Internet, is not at all unreasonable. Some committees simply post a notice on the wall outside their offices and make the absurd claim they are giving "public notice."
2. Try to have hearings at times and places convenient to the public.
If there are bills with wide public interest, or of regional interest, hearings should be held in the evenings and/or in areas easy to get to.
3. Have a pre-determined procedure for running the hearing, and follow it.
The management of public hearings has been full of abuses over the years. Often people come to the hearing early and sign a list thinking they will be heard in the order that they signed, by bill number. Then they watch as the committee calls people arbitrarily, or allows some to testify ahead of others. There should be a predetermined procedure, both as to the order of testifying and time allotted.
4. Require all committee members to be present - at least a majority at all times.
It's insulting to the public when they come all the way to the State House, and only two or three members of the committee show up at the hearing. Or members (including the chairmen) wander in and out during testimony. If they're going to serve on a committee, then they should be at the hearings and paying attention. Hearings should not be scheduled during times the Legislature is in session or other official business is taking place that requires legislators' attendance elsewhere.
5. Require legislators (and other "celebrities") who testify to follow the same rules as everyone else.
State representatives, state senators (and other "celebrities") are universally allowed to simply show up, cut in line, and testify immediately - and also speak as long as they wish. This is very annoying to members of the public who have come all the way to the State House and waited in line to speak. Legislators should sign up and wait in line like everyone else. (At a recent hearing, a former candidate for governor was allowed to testify ahead of everyone else because "she had another appointment".) Is their time more valuable than anyone else's?
Moreover, since legislators are at the State House every day they have the opportunity speak with the committee members quite frequently. But the public rarely sees their elected officials.
6. Require special "panels" to follow formal rules.
During many hearings a "panel of experts" will suddenly be called up and panel members will be allowed to give lengthy presentations without regard to time limits. Often these panels are simply informal groups of people who could easily testify separately, brought in by special interest organizations. Usually these panels hadn't signed the general public list; they are arbitrarily allowed to step forward by the committee chairman, having made arrangements previously. Panels should have to sign up like everyone else and each member be given the same time as members of the public, and have time limits. If the input from these panels is particularly important, maybe separate arrangements should be made - having a special early session, for example.
PO Box 1612, Waltham, Massachusetts 781-890-6001