If they want to encourage citizen involvement in government, public servants can start by writing laws in plain English, establishing ground rules to ensure civil discussions and reaching out to working folks who can’t attend public meetings.

Those were among the suggestions Friday and Saturday at the Public Participation in a Polarized Era conference at the University of Hawaii. After listening to speakers and panel discussions, attendees broke into groups to discuss ways to improve Hawaii’s political climate.

Groups discussed topics such as technology for improving public discussion, education of public servants and improving state law.

Event organizer Peter Adler speaks to conference participants. Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

Event sponsors included the Accord 3.0 Network, UH Public Policy Center, Honolulu Civil Beat, Ulupono Initiative, ThinkTech Hawaii and the UH William S. Richardson School of Law.

Participants said democracy could also be improved by having independent evaluators at meetings to take stock of opinions or allowing neighbor island residents to participate live in meetings electronically — though even that strategy wouldn’t serve needy residents without access to technology.

Committee chairs could benefit from more training in facilitating meetings, and in how to keep testifiers speaking on topic and not verbally attacking others, one group said. It also suggested that legislative bills include analyses of the social or environmental impacts.

Not all responsibilities fell on the shoulders of public servants, according to conference attendees.

Some participants suggested everyday citizens do more to stay engaged, such as subscribing to newsletters or trying to find common ground with people on the opposite side of an issue.

Rich Wilson leads a group discussion on ways to improve state rules and regulations. Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

The problem of abusive social media comments was one topic discussed by a panel on “innovations, solutions and fixes” in the public process.

Panelist Nicole Brodie, a consultant, suggested establishing ground rules for commenters to keep conversations civil. Aggressive or personal comments can be removed.

“If people break those ground rules, you can call them out on it,” said panelist Rich Wilson, another consultant.

Sometimes decisions are made before a public meeting, behind closed doors. One conference attendee asked how people can share information with officials before they have already decided.

Challenging officials to seek public input earlier in the decision-making process can help, panelists said, as can sharing stories with members of the media.

Panelist Bob Fishman, who has been a public official for the city and the state, said public input is usually sought ahead of a hearing, but “government officials, elected officials, do not respect the collective judgment of the public.

“They believe the public is there to give their point of view,” he said.

One woman who said she frequently runs neighborhood meetings asked the panel for advice on working with an audience that takes over the meeting agenda for its own purposes.

Supporters of a proposal are less likely to show up than opponents, said panelist Keith Mattson. At public meetings, officials may know those opponents only represent a portion of the electorate, he said.

If meeting organizers know a certain topic will be controversial, Wilson said, they can revise the agenda. By addressing the issue earlier, attendees may feel that their opinions are being heard.

Asking for help from the community can be one way to make people feel that they’re being heard, panelists said.

And if all that fails — as one conference participant said — citizens can run for office themselves.

The Ulupono Initiative was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. 

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