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Opponents criticize privacy of WisDOT public hearings

Sean Ryan

The state stifled debate about the Zoo Interchange by forcing people to comment one-on-one with court reporters rather than in public hearings, a group opposing the project says.

During public hearings in June, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation provided agents to answer residents’ questions, court reporters to record testimony and sheets for written comments. But WisDOT did not set up a forum in which people could stand in front of a crowd and give their opinions so others could hear.

Such a public forum “allows citizens to understand each other’s points of view,” said Jeff Gonyo, a steering committee member of Highway J Citizens Group, which opposes the project. “And that is a true public hearing.”

Gonyo sent written comments to WisDOT opposing reconstruction plans for the Zoo Interchange and arguing hearings must be held in a public forum to satisfy federal law. Monday is the deadline for comments on the project.

WisDOT collected 38 oral testimonies and 57 written comments from 245 people who attended the two June public hearings in West Allis. The hearings were held to collect comments on the project’s proposed environmental impact statement, a report that outlines a project’s effect on, among other things, property, traffic and wildlife.

The statement outlines reconstruction proposals for the interchange. WisDOT will review the public comments and select a final reconstruction plan this fall.

The hearings were part of a multiyear effort to hold public meetings about the project. WisDOT representatives went block-by-block through West Allis and held more than 30 meetings, said Peter Daniels, West Allis’ principal engineer.

West Allis Mayor Dan Devine said people noticed.

“I heard a lot of appreciative comments about the outreach efforts,” he said.

WisDOT representatives were unavailable to comment before deadline.

Gonyo said he attended one June public hearing and commented to a court reporter. But he was not allowed into the hearing with informational boards and pamphlets opposing the project.

He argued the process violates federal public hearing laws and is intended to prevent public criticism of the reconstruction plans for the Zoo Interchange.

“I don’t want one federal tax dollar spent on this project because, A, they didn’t hold a proper public hearing, and, B, they didn’t allow people to discuss with other people,” Gonyo said.

Holding open meetings to collect public comments is good regardless of whether federal law requires it in certain situations, said Terry Pastika, director and community lawyer of the Citizen Advocacy Center, an Elmhurst, Ill.-based nonprofit group dedicated to open government.

“Definitely there is a question between what is legal and what is the right thing,” she said.

Christa Westerberg, vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the democratic process works better when residents speak openly in front of others because it gives elected officials a better gauge of public sentiment. Efforts to influence government become fragmented if people don’t know what others think, she said.

“It’s better for the political process if it’s a more open format,” said Westerberg, an attorney with McGillivray Westerberg & Bender LLC, Madison. “Not to say the riotous hearings going on in respect to health care are a good format, but I think you can have a controlled setting.”

Open discussions can lead to better brainstorming because people can build off of each other’s ideas, Devine said. But, he said, WisDOT made a solid effort to meet with residents and collect their written statements.

West Allis officials on Friday gave to WisDOT a five-page letter (PDF) expressing the city’s opinion of the project.

West Allis asked WisDOT to rebuild the interchange with eight lanes instead of six, give the city money to reconstruct 76th Street to deal with an expected increase in exiting highway drivers and keep on- and off-ramps at Greenfield Avenue.

“Overall, I think that the DOT did a pretty good outreach,” Devine said. “If there was any loss, I think it was small.”

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