An important responsibility of a local council is the management of ‘public land’ under its care and control. Importantly, all ‘public land’ must be classified as operational or community land. The classification of the land determines how the land is managed and whether a council can sell that land in the future. If the land is classified as community land, then it cannot be sold. Council must also categorise the land and adopt a plan of management for the land.
So what happens, when a council wants to change how the land is managed? Generally, a public hearing is required. After conducting numerous public hearings for local councils from simple to controversial matters, we have developed a robust process to make sure hearings are run effectively and efficiently. Here we share five simple tips from what we have learnt.
When is a public hearing needed
A local council must hold a public hearing where it proposes to reclassify ‘public land’ and in certain circumstances when the plan of management categorises the land. Critically, a public hearing must be chaired by an ‘independent person’ and a report about the hearing must be prepared and made available to the public. The public hearing process is important in capturing community views about how a council proposes to manage public land. These can often be controversial, particularly where a council proposes to change the classification from community to operational.
How to run an effective public hearing
1. Provide information and ground rules
First, it can be helpful to prepare and distribute information materials ahead of time to people who wish to attend or make a submission at the hearing. This can explain the purpose, objectives and process of the public hearing. It may also set out any applicable ground rules – something that can be particularly handy for controversial matters.
2. Book a suitable venue
If possible, the venue should be located within the affected community. If this is not possible, then a neutral location is important. This can often be the Council chambers which are usually well equipped to hold such an event. Any physical venue needs to be COVID safe and attendees must comply with any applicable public health orders. It is also possible to conduct the hearing online using video conferencing technology or to use a hybrid of in-person and online techniques.
3. Give adequate notice
It is important to broadly publicise and advertise the hearing, along with the background information that has led to the need for the hearing. Make sure to put information in places where stakeholders go for their community information. Reach out directly to those that may be impacted or have an interest in the land by extending personal invitations to impacted stakeholders. Like all engagement processes, the notice should not be given over any major holidays such as Christmas or the Easter holiday break.
4. Effective facilitation
A public hearing must be well facilitated and is different from a town hall or public meeting. Try to make a comfortable setting and avoid situations where individuals dominate the hearing and overwhelm the ability of other voices to be heard. This is an important role of the independent Chair – keeping the hearing on track and enforcing any ground rules for the speakers so that everyone is treated fairly. It is also important to keep any presentation material simple and to explain this in plain English.
5. Explain the next steps
At the end of the hearing, it is vital that everyone is told about what will happen next. This includes explaining:
- how submissions will be taken into account
- that an independent report will be prepared for council to consider as part of its decision making process
- when and where the independent report will be made publicly available
- any other options to provide input into the process
A well organised and run public hearing ensures that people can voice their opinions about any proposal by a council to change how public land is managed. It is also important that the opinions offered are heard and recorded by an independent person. If you need to hold a public hearing, please contact us to discuss how we may assist.