Government agencies suffer from a perception that they are too often unresponsive to public input as they make decisions that can have far-reaching effects.

In Minnesota, that suspicion is particularly strong when it comes to the Department of Natural Resources.

So it is surprising the DNR would add fuel to the fire by holding hearings on a controversial mining project and bar the public from speaking their minds about the project.

That’s exactly what happened when the DNR and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held two joint public meetings on the environmental impacts of the proposed PolyMet copper mine in northern Minnesota.

The agencies gave a review of the project, but only allowed the public to submit comments in writing, or orally to a crew of court stenographers brought in to dictate residents’ opinions.

There was no traditional “open microphone” allowing the public to voice their opinions or ask questions.

DNR officials say the no-open-microphone system prevented grandstanding and eliminated the need to pick and choose who gets to talk at meetings that drew nearly 1,000 people.

Of course there would be grandstanding had people been allowed to speak. And there would be booing and cheering. There also would have been thoughtful questions and opinions. And most importantly, a chance for people to hear what their neighbors have to say.

That type of free-for-all public hearing has been a hallmark of American democracy since before the country was founded.

Increasingly, state agencies are designing processes that give the appearance of public input while limiting the core aspects of it. Many public meetings — as were the ones held on PolyMet — are now designed by consultants who work to protect government agencies from facing conflict and criticism.

There are diverse and emotional arguments about the PolyMet copper mining proposal. Many environmentalists raise a host of concerns, including dangers of sulfuric acid runoff. Many of those who live in the economically battered Iron Range see the proposed mine’s 400 jobs as a necessity.

Government agencies have an obligation to hear the voices of residents on controversial projects. Certainly, allowing written comments is important. But so is the ability of neighbors to speak publicly. Holding several meetings to allow for that public input is not too much to ask of government.

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