01/31/2014 12:36 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

You Say You Want a Public Hearing?

An Op-Ed by freelance writer Anna Hiatt on the January 21 Washington Post "Fed Page" reported that Representatives José Serrano (D-NY) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif) are urging the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to hold up on its sales of historic post offices, pending studies by the Service's inspector general and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). Ms. Hiatt correctly notes that old post offices are often important community assets, and that the communities they serve often object to their being closed and sold.

This is an old, long-standing problem, resulting from changes in demographics, transportation, the way mail is handled, and the growth of the internet, among other factors. A lot of historic post offices are redundant or inefficient as mail-handling facilities, but they're often architectural gems and more importantly, they're treasured by the communities they serve. It's a problem to which there is probably no ready solution, and each case doubtless presents unique characteristics.

Each post office closing and disposal where there are community concerns ought to get the kind of consultation among concerned parties that's required by the regulations implementing Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Such consultation leads either to an agreement among the concerned parties about whether and how to proceed with the closing or sale, or to a final high-level recommendation by the ACHP that the USPS (in this case) can't ignore. That's simply what the law requires.

Unfortunately, to judge from Ms. Hiatt's article, neither side is paying any attention to what the law requires. The USPS, she says wants to fast-track its sales by exempting them, or some of them, from review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The two congresspeople and other concerned parties are calling for more "public input" -- specifically public hearings.

Which, if the USPS graciously gives in and conducts, will accomplish precisely nothing.

All a public hearing does is get the public heard -- that is, those members of the public who attend. It doesn't get what they say attended to; it doesn't force or even much tempt an agency to change its mind. It merely lets the public spout off. The agency, having generously given the public this hankered-for opportunity, can then retire to its Olympian heights and make its decision, with no necessary attention to what the public has said. If it's said anything sensible, which is doubtful given the counterproductive structure and dynamics of the average public hearing.

Claudia Nissley and I discuss this at some length in our forthcoming book, Consultation and Cultural Heritage: Let Us Reason Together, and conclude that while "Americans love public hearings, ... they're not consultation, ... and often impede sensible consultation."

Consultation being what the law (not NEPA, but Sections 106 and 110 of NHPA) requires. Not public hearings, not public input, but consultation, which means sitting down with all the concerned parties and trying to work out an agreement.

It's easy enough to understand why the USPS would want to obscure and ignore this legal requirement, but what would be very strange if it weren't so commonplace is that the representatives in Congress, who must have staffs to look into things like this, could be so dumb as to do the same. Why promote public hearings instead of insisting that the USPS do the kind of reasoning-together that might do some good, and that the law actually requires? Consultation has a fighting chance of resulting in some kind of agreement in each case that meets the needs of both the USPS and the communities that value their post offices. Public hearings, by themselves, have little chance of doing anything but generating hot air.