• Public Meetings/Hearings

    Public meetings present information to the public and obtain informal input from community residents. Held throughout the planning process, they are tailored to specific issues or community groups and are either informal or formal. Public meetings have been used for many years to disseminate information, provide a setting for public discussion, and get feedback from the community. Over 100 public meetings were used to develop a subway extension in Boston. While the technique itself is not innovative, some creative applications are being made. For example, Delaware used public "exhibits" in an informal open house format with one-on-one discussions as a focal point of each phase of a highway planning effort.


  • How do meetings and hearings differ?
    A public hearing is a more formal event than a public meeting. Held prior to a decision point, a public hearing gathers community comments and positions from all interested parties for public record and input into decisions. Public hearings are required by the Federal government for many transportation projects and are held in transportation planning at the discretion of the sponsoring organization. Public notices in a general circulation newspaper cite the time, date, and place of a hearing. The period between notice and hearing dates provides time for preparing comments for submission to an agency. During this period, the agency accepts questions and provides clarification. The Georgia DOT expands the question-and-answer period by holding an open house in conjunction with a public hearing. (See Open Houses/Open Forum Hearings) Meetings and hearings have these basic features: 

    • Anyone may attend, as either an individual or a representative of specific interests;
    • Meetings may be held at appropriate intervals; hearings are held near the end of a process or sub-process before a decision;
    • Hearings require an official hearing officer; meetings do not;
    • Hearings usually have a time period during which written comments may be received; and
    • Community comments are recorded in written form as input to an agency.
    Why are they useful?
    Meetings and hearings are forums for receiving community comments. Both are widely used to achieve a basic level of community input and to exchange information with a wide representation of community residents. 

    Public meetings are optional events and thus tailored to agency and community needs. Public hearings, by contrast, are frequently used to fulfill regulatory requirements. Meetings and hearings can, however, be linked. For example, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) in both Atlanta, Georgia, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, held multiple meetings on a transportation improvement program (TIP) at local public review meetings, followed by a public hearing at the MPO level.

    Public meetings are flexible and can be held as part of MPO or statewide planning or part of a single project. There can be multiple sessions on a single topic: the Kentucky DOT held community meetings on the State TIP over a three-month period. Meetings can be held in multiple locations, as can hearings.

    A public hearing is a single opportunity for people to be heard. If held at the end of a process without other opportunities for involvement, it does not provide opportunity for early and continuing involvement as described in Federal regulations. More frequent community input is essential to agencies and more satisfying to people as a means of meeting participation requirements and goals. In Seattle, for example, the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) took part in more than 1,000 community meetings, forums, open houses, and hearings to provide information and receive public input on the Regional Transit Plan. As part of this effort, agency representatives participated as guest speakers in meetings of groups such as the MPO.

    Do they have special uses?
    Each meeting or hearing facilitates participation. Scheduling these opportunities demonstrates progress toward involving community residents in projects and programs. They provide a place to identify positions and report a consensus or divergence of opinion to an agency. In Brisbane, California, a "Have Your Say Day" was held to obtain individuals’ ideas for the city’s planning efforts.

    A single meeting can address several related projects or community planning issues. This is more efficient for agencies, in terms of both staff time and mailing costs, and it helps avoid participant burnout, particularly when many of the same people are interested in several projects or plans. Joint meetings also help to place individual project issues and goals within a broader community context. For 10 projects along the San Francisco waterfront, the city created a Waterfront Transportation Projects Office that coordinated all the city agencies involved. The office used a common mailing list, coordinated newsletters, and joint meetings. Through this cooperative effort, participants saw their specific concerns in relation to the "big picture."

    Who participates? And how?
    All community people can participate in meetings or hearings. In some instances, participation is structured, either within larger meetings or for geographic areas. Both the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., MPOs provide time for formal public comment periods (15–20 minutes) at each of their meetings. In Portland, Maine, the MPO received input from neighborhood associations. The New Orleans MPO made special efforts to reach out to businesses by sponsoring two major conferences dealing with transportation issues of interest to businesses. The Mobile, Alabama, MPO brought in Chamber of Commerce representatives to review TIP projects and worked with them and others to forge a consensus. Meetings, but not hearings, can be focused on particular groups.

    How do agencies use the output?
    Meetings and hearings help monitor community reactions to agency policy, proposals, and progress. By observing reactions at periodic meetings or at a hearing, agencies and people are made aware of opinions and stances. If public meetings are held early in the process, these opinions may be analyzed and responded to before they become solidified or difficult to modify. Public hearings provide formal input to decisions.

    Meetings can become a driving force for technical work. The MPO of Dane County (Madison), Wisconsin, devoted one year of a three-year, long-range planning process to responding to community input and comments brought up at a series of meetings scheduled throughout the period.

    Who leads public meetings or hearings?
    Meetings may be led by an agency staffer or a member of the public. In some instances, it may be appropriate to hire a professional facilitator to lead a meeting, especially if the issue to be discussed is highly divisive or controversial. A "discussion document" helps prepare people for participation if distributed prior to public meetings, as is done in Los Angeles.

    By contrast, hearings are led by a public hearing officer, who is an agency representative. Agency staff helps disseminate information, particularly when a public hearing is combined with an open house. Virginia DOT publishes a step-by-step guide for open house public hearings, emphasizing that people can attend at a time of their own choosing and can present comments either formally or informally, as desired. The Georgia DOT reports that proportionally more citizens make comments at open forum public hearings.

    What are the costs?
    Resource and staff needs can be substantial, depending on the type of meeting. Delaware's exhibit meetings were heavily staffed—16 to 18 professionals were stationed throughout the room to answer questions and determine the concerns of the 300 to 500 people who attended each event. In a meeting or hearing preceded by an open house, displays of major elements of a plan or process are required for full explanations to community residents. Sketch overlays, notepads, or comment sheets are needed to record public comments at the meeting.

    How are they organized?
    An agency organizes a public meeting or hearing and prepares pre-meeting materials, including meeting announcements and agendas, displays, audio-visual materials, and any mailings or publicity that are necessary. The public should be made aware of the free access to these materials. (See Information Materials; Mailing Lists) In San Diego, the MPO publishes an agenda and monthly digest of its meetings for public distribution. Agencies consider the needs of people with disabilities and transit access in selecting a convenient place and time. An agency or community people may want to set up ground rules for meetings. These include:
    • Recognizing the legitimacy of others’ concerns;
    • Accepting responsibility for coming to a meeting prepared for discussion;
    • Listening carefully and sharing discussion time with others;
    • Encouraging everyone to participate;
    • Discussing with intent to identify areas of agreement, clarify differences, and search for common understanding; and
    • Establishing a speaker’s time limit.
    For a public meeting, an agency provides meeting summaries in written form, describing areas of agreement and disagreement. All points of view must be clearly and fairly stated. A hearing transcript is formally prepared, based on a stenographic record or tape.

    How are they used with other techniques?
    A media strategy is always necessary for either a public meeting or a public hearing to attract the widest possible audience. (See Media Strategies) For example, adequate advertising for public events always includes more than a single newspaper advertisement. During a public meeting, a brainstorming, visioning, or charrette technique may be used. (See Brainstorming; Visioning; Charrettes) A facilitator may be appropriate. (See Facilitation) Special provisions need to be made to comply with the needs of disabled people for access to the meeting. Video or audio tapes of proceedings are important for analytic or other purposes. (See Video Techniques)

    An open house is similar to a transportation fair, for either a public meeting or a public hearing. Presentations, slide shows, and one-on-one discussions continue throughout the event. Exhibits are laid out as a series of stations: a reception area; a presentation area for slide shows or short talks; areas for one-on-one discussions between community people and agency staff members, and displays of background information, activities to date, work flow, anticipated next steps, and an array of primary subject panels. (See Transportation Fairs; Open Houses/Open Forum Hearings)

    What are the drawbacks?
    A public hearing is an insufficient level of public involvement when held at the end of a process and not accompanied by other opportunities to participate. In such a case, community members feel their concerns cannot be addressed because they are heard too late and have little chance of being integrated into the final decision. At open house public hearings, although people may present views publicly, they are heard primarily by the agency and not by other participants. Such hearings in Delaware include time for speakers to talk in front of others who may have conflicting viewpoints.

    Public meetings do not always allay community doubts about agency credibility. Although they improve the possibility of adequate public involvement, meetings must be frequent enough and well-focused enough on issues to demonstrate agency concern about public involvement. In addition, an agency needs to make clear the link between meeting input and decision-making. Public meetings must be held early in the process and reasonably frequently thereafter to dispel fears that they are perfunctory or that an agency is not listening to community concerns. Large meetings or formal hearings may intimidate people and restrain commenting.

    A very small percentage of the public attends public meetings, so such meetings should be only one component of a more comprehensive public involvement program.

    For further information:
    Atlanta Regional Commission
    (404) 463-3100

    Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington
    (206) 398-5000

    City of San Francisco Chief Administrative Office
    (415) 554-4851

    Dane County, (Madison), Wisconsin
    (608) 266-4137

    Delaware Department of Transportation
    (302) 760-2100

    Georgia Department of Transportation
    (404) 631-1802

    New Orleans Metropolitan Planning Organization
    (504) 483-8513


 Technique Ratings

Item is currently unrated.
Item is currently unrated.

 Technique Information

Large Meetings
Project/Study Scale
Local/Sub-regional, Regional, Corridor, Statewide, Multistate
Public Engagement Goals
Consult, Inform, Involve
< 3 months, 3 - 12 months, > 12 months

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