Plan Commissioners Thursday discussed everything from a blog for public comments to shorter meetings as ways to improve the commission’s review of Evanston development projects.

The round table meeting with several community activists held by the commission’s rules committee brought out many suggestions for streamlining and improving the predictability of the process, some of them contradictory.

Recommendations for time limits on individual public comments ranged all over the map — from 3 minutes to as long as 20 minutes per person. And there were also differing views on how much extra time, if any, should be given to speakers who claim to represent citizen groups or who want to offer visual aids to support their presentations.

Chris Ernst, representing the Southeast Evanston Association, said that with the commission’s current four-hour-long meetings, “you get a large group of people at the start, and then as the meeting goes on you lose people, especially when the commission takes a mid-meeting break.”

“It may be their first time at a public hearing, and they’re totally frustrated,” Ernst said.

Several speakers said that when the commission has multiple projects on its agenda, and runs out of time to address them all, it leaves residents frustrated and forces developers to spend extra money to have their consultants show up at additional meetings.

Jeanne Lindwall of 625 Library Place suggested there should be better ways for citizens to know that their opinion is in the public record without having to actually get up and make a statement at the meeting.

Citizens now can send comments in letters or e-mail messages to the city’s planning staff, but residents apparently are uncertain whether those messages are added to the public record.

Commissioner Seth Freeman suggested an online discussion group could facilitate discussions among citizens about projects outside of formal meetings. “Something facilitated by the city, blog-like or discussion threads,” Freeman said.

Lindwall said that problems arise for citizens who wish to comment on a project when developers revise their proposal between the time the formal notice is sent out and the public hearing.

Printed copies of the developers’ original proposal are made available at the Civic Center and at the Evanston Public Library, but neither the original documents or revisions are available online.

The commissioners discussed ending meetings at 10 or 10:30 p.m., rather than the current scheduled 11 p.m. hour, and also touched on the possibility of holding shorter, more frequent meetings, but did not seem to reach consensus.

Everyone at the meeting did seem to agree that a citizen’s guide to review process would reduce confusion and help resident participate more effectively.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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