Dwight McComb, speaking at a public meeting this week, told Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission members to try harder to engage the general public.
No one from the general public was there to hear him.
The planning and program development engineer from the Federal Highway Administration spoke only to SEWRPC board and staff members, his colleagues from the highway administration, a blogger and a newspaper reporter.
“The majority of people in the region have no clue what the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission does,” said James Dwyer, a SEWRPC commissioner and Waukesha County Board chairman.
The Federal Highway Administration recertified SEWRPC this week but told planners to get people in the seven-county southeastern Wisconsin region more involved in the organization’s work. The commission, according to the highway administration, should streamline its Web site’s design and navigation and boil down its planning reports to make them easier for the average person to read.
As he laid out the recommendations, McComb acknowledged it is a challenge to attract people to transportation planning.
“It’s sometimes difficult to elevate transportation to a priority with some groups,” he said.
People should educate themselves, but government agencies should make it easier to understand what the agencies are doing, said Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney for the Poverty, Race & Civil Liberties Project of the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation. The commission, she said, is not doing enough to make its complicated engineering and planning activities accessible.
“I think the primary and initial obligation lies with them,” she said.
The ACLU and other social and environmental organizations last year organized people to testify against SEWRPC when the highway administration was holding public hearings on the commission’s recertification. An open house meeting attracted 40 people.
If SEWRPC wants higher attendance at planning meetings, it should stop using such dense language as “2035 regional transportation plan” to promote open houses, Rotker said.
“If you send a notice that says, ‘Come and talk about transit needs in Milwaukee or transit needs in the region over the next 30 years,’ I think you will get more interest,” she said.
The commission is trying to attract more attention. In early 2010, the commission will redesign its Web site with more pictures and an easier-to-read format.
In May, the commission hired Stephen Adams as public involvement and outreach manager. His job is to meet people face to face and seek speaking time at events held by other organizations in Milwaukee.
“It’s just taking the time to explain what it is that you do,” Adams said. “Once you do, people say, ‘Oh yeah, I never thought about that. That makes a lot of sense.’”
He said he is a relative newcomer to the commission and uses his learning process to relate to people.
Looking across a room devoid of the general public after this week’s SEWRPC meeting, Dwyer said he can count on one hand the number of times people packed into a Waukesha County Board meeting during his 18 years on the board.
People will fill the seats if they are worried about police services or garbage pickups, he said.
But a regional land-use plan for 30 years down the road just doesn’t carry the same cachet.
“How do you get people excited,” Dwyer said, “about coming to a meeting?”