Public Hearing was Productive



     Public hearings — like last week’s in Lacey on the state Highway Authority’s discharge of sewage into the Cedar Creek — invariably make great copy.

     There’s always an array of politicians making speeches appealing to their constituents’ sense of outrage and using the facts like kids use firecrackers on the Fourth of July.

     There are the bureaucrats, making somewhat less flashy speeches, mumbling the word “utilize” over and over and using “impact” as a verb.

     There are the private citizens, rising from their seats and telling how their lives have changed or are going to be changed as a result of government policy.

     And then there are the reporters, loving it all, sorting out the more inflammatory and easily translated statements and composing leads in their heads such as, “About 100 persons turned up at a public hearing last night and screamed bloody murder at what they said was a gross infringement on their….”

     Although it had elements of the above, the Cedar Creek hearing was somewhat different.  The politicians, teeing off on their favorite target — state government — more or less moderated their rhetoric.  The comments were above average for the most part.

     And the private citizens in attendance were relatively quiet.  They let their elected officials do the talking.

     But the most remarkable difference was that something seemed to have been accomplished at this hearing, and that was the work of the presiding officer, Richard Bellis of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

     An affable father figure who specializes in running hearings, Bellis was a steadying influence on the proceedings.  He graced the evening with a sense both of humor and direction.

     “I felt good about the hearing,” said the 51-year-old Bellis.  “I was aware before I went down there that a lot of people had thought this issue over and that there was strong feeling against the discharge.”

     The session was called by the DEP after township officials objected to the Highway Authority’s practice of discharging treated sewage from the Forked River Service Area on the Garden State Parkway into the environmentally treasured Cedar Creek.  The authority was seeking renewal of a DEP discharge permit.

     Leading the opposition to the renewal was Township Committeeman Henry Delo, chairman of the Municipal Utilities Authority.  He called on the Highway Authority to pump its waste water into the township’s sewer line rather than sully the pristine waters of the Cedar Creek.  The state body had maintained a hook-up would be too expensive.

     Taking it all in, along with Bellis and three other DEP officials, was James Conlon, the Highway Authority’s chief engineer.  Crew-cut and expressionless, he was the perfect image of a Marine drill sergeant facing a court martial.

     After about 90 minutes of listening to the views of various county and township officials — and the comments of two private citizens — Bellis pointed the hearing toward a meaningful conclusion.

     He directed Conlon and Delo to arrange a meeting of their respective authorities to formulate a hook-up scheme both bodies could live with.  And he insisted the work session take place within 30 days.

     Bellis, anticipating an age-old problem in government, warned against an “endless series of meetings.”

     “This hearing was distinguished by its productivity,” Bellis said.  “The two sides agreed to sit down and work out a solution to the problem.  I felt I was the triggering mechanism.”

     Bellis credits his adjudicating skills to 26 years’ experience in government.  Add to his background an easy-going manner and a kind, youthful face and you have one smooth front man for the DEP.  Walter Cronkite could not have inspired more trust.

     Of course, not everyone at the DEP is like that.  As a reporter, I’ve found that dealing with the department is a crap shoot — either you find someone who wants to talk your head off, or someone who would rather conduct the public’s business in private.

     I asked Bellis if he’d ever been offered a job doing public relations for business, perhaps with a big corporation that can afford the best PR-men money can buy.  He said he hadn’t.

     Personally, I hope the offer never comes, and if it does, I hope Bellis rejects it.  Given the average citizen’s suspicions of state government — legitimate and otherwise — and the many politicians eager to exploit those suspicions, the DEP needs all the help it can get.

Ocean County Observer, Toms River, NJ 10/10/83