Public engagement

Public engagement is a lofty goal. When interested parties on multiple sides weigh in, better outcomes and real buy-in from “We the people” can lead to robust discourse. Is it is a myth? Is it worth the effort? Does it really matter? Through a series of steps in the past year, our office has steadfastly worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife (the Department) to bring us to a point of announcing an impending true public engagement vehicle that is being  assembled. So yes, for the present and in real time, the recently hotly debated topic of Crotalus Atrox (Western Diamondback Rattlesnake) capture will be exhaustively considered. A diverse and comprehensive stakeholder group is being formed and selected by the Department at this time to evaluate at all sides of the issue. The group is to be named in the very near future by the Department and is expected to study the issue of capture methodology as well as other pertinent issues.  Work by the group is predicted to be completed by the Fall of 2015 and will include some members of the Sweetwater community interviewed and selected by the Department Director. To help clarify the need for such a group, a chronology may be of help to see the complexity surrounding the dialogue. For several years (Fall, 2009) the Texas Parks and Wildlife has been delving into the topic of non-game species capture and the methodology utilized. For District 71, this translates to the taking of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes for the purpose of the Annual Sweetwater Rattlesnake Round-up.  The term for studying this topic is called scoping.  Parks and Wildlife began a series of stakeholder meetings, including evaluation of surveys completed  to study all facets of capture. Specifically, the concern at the center of their scoping efforts was the use of a noxious substance to coax the reptile out of the location of the creature’s habitat. Our office was first made aware of these concerns when members of the Sweetwater community brought this to our attention in  2010. At our invitation and after meeting with experts from the Department in our District office, we realized the study of the issue of “so called gassing” was gaining traction. We were not made aware of the extent of progression on the subject until the publishing of a rule in the State Register in December 2013. Apparently an online petition submitted to the Department may have been the proverbial “straw injuring a humped back mammal” that capped a period of scoping leading to the published rule. Simply put, the use of a noxious substance or gasoline would be prohibited from being used as a fume to bring the snakes out of their environment. Upon discovery of this published rule, our office immediately requested a meeting at the Department’s offices and we learned more. There were to be six public input locations throughout the state. Five locations had been chosen. Of course, in support of Sweetwater and their world renowned and respected roundup I strongly urged that the sixth hearing would take place in Sweetwater. That being agreed to, on Jan. 17, 2014, a packed room of concerned and articulate citizens were present (approximately 200). This showing of true public engagement revealed more advocates than all the other hearings combined in our huge state. Even with a stellar showing, the process would still continue and be placed on the agenda when the Commissioners (appointed by the Governor) for the Department would meet in March. Through many conversations, letters and reasonableness on the part of the Commissioners and the leadership of the Department, the proposed rule was removed from the agenda. Not taking anything for granted, I traveled to Austin to be present for any general discussion and to ask for permission to make a statement. It was surprising to learn that in their recollection there had never been a legislator present at a hearing to speak on an proposed rule issue. Later we were officially informed that the rule for consideration had been “postponed indefinitely.” Great news for Sweetwater and a victory for public engagement! This brings us to today as we await the naming of the stakeholder group and the thoughtful charge that the Department has developed. Did the dedicated citizenry of Sweetwater and their strong testimony matter? Did a state Department listen and see the value of further study? That is for the engaged public to decide. Stay tuned.... Susan King is a Member of the Texas House of Representatives serving District 71, comprised of Taylor, Nolan and Jones Counties in West Central Texas.