For the chance to criticize NationsBank Corp.'s community lending record at a public hearing today in San Francisco, Peter Skillern had to give up three days of work, travel 2,800 miles, and spend $750 on airfare and hotel.

After all that, the executive director of the Durham (N.C.) Affordable Housing Coalition is unlikely to have even a marginal effect on the Federal Reserve Board's decision to allow the NationsBank-BankAmerica Corp. merger.

The Fed has never rejected a merger after holding an open hearing, and its approval orders refer only in passing to the testimony.

"I have not seen a hearing have an effect on the board's decision-making in any significant way," said Gilbert T. Schwartz, a former Fed lawyer who is a partner at the Washington firm Schwartz & Ballen.

"For the life of me, I don't understand why they do it," said another attorney. "You get a lot of people speaking who are totally uninformed. This all could be done by written comment."

Even activists question the point of the hearings. Sarah Ludwig, coordinator for the New York City Community Reinvestment Task Force, charged that banks stack the witness list with housing and economic development groups that are beholden to them for funding.

"What a waste of time it is to have one panel after another testify when they might not even have a substantive position on the merger," she said.

Yet each of these hearings-the Fed has held eight to date-routinely attract more than 100 witnesses and take more than a day to complete. The 1995 Fleet Financial Group-Shawmut National Corp. merger proposal required three days; the 1996 battle between Wells Fargo & Co. and First Bank System Inc. for First Interstate Bancorp took four.

Activists may not like the format, but they love the forums. Mr. Skillern said today's hearing is his only opportunity to deliver his anti- merger appeal directly to the central bank.

"It is a small stage, but it is the only one we have right now," Mr. Skillern said.

Michael Green, a member of Bronx, N.Y.-based Inner City Press-Community on the Move, had to spend an hour on the subway, miss half of a workday, and bring a Spanish-speaking translator to testify last month at the hearing on Citicorp's deal with Travelers Group. But he said the hassle was worthwhile because it gave him the chance to speak out on how his community would be hurt.

"It is very important to come, because maybe they will take it more seriously," Mr. Green said through a translator.

"It is extremely important for us to have human contact with the Fed," said Jennifer Lee, community development associate at the Reinvestment Committee of Cypress Hills and City Line, N.Y. "A piece of paper doesn't show our emotion."

Scott G. Alvarez, the Fed's associate general counsel, who has helped preside over five hearings, said issues often come up that he later will follow up on with the banks.

"What is important is people can come here and tell us what they think," he said. "You get a sense of the passion people have and you hear a wide variety of views."

Privately, some bankers lambaste the hearings as time-consuming, distracting, and pointless.

"The advocates exploit this in ways that are not necessarily appropriate," a banker said. The public forum "gives them a chance to be heard regardless of the merits of what they are saying."

Yet others said it is important for the Fed to provide that outlet.

"It is very valuable to the community," said Pamela P. Flaherty, Citibank's senior vice president for global community relations. "They have a chance to be heard."

"These hearings are all about ensuring the full record is considered as part of our application," said Catherine P. Bessant, president of community reinvestment at NationsBank. "The Fed is trying to create the opportunity for maximum public input."

Activists want more. Robert Gnaizda, general counsel of the Greenlining Institute, San Francisco, said the Fed should adopt a more adversarial process, similar to the system used by the California Public Utility Commission.

In those hearings, activists who demonstrate that they are experts on utility mergers gain access to applicants' records and may cross-examine company officials.

Mr. Gnaizda said such a system could cause banks to substantially hike their community reinvestment lending.

"CEOs have enormous fear of cross examination," he said. "They would rather do good than be subject to withering cross-examination."

Another option-advocated by Matthew Lee, executive director of Inner City Press-is to let only opponents testify. This would give them more time to explain their analyses of banks' lending and service records.

"Most of the positive testimony is not necessary," Mr. Lee said. "It is not because it is unimportant or not real. It is just not in dispute."

Ms. Flaherty questioned whether giving opponents more latitude, including the right to question bank officials, would be beneficial.

"The purpose of this hearing is not to facilitate communication with the bank," she said. "The purpose is for the community to communicate with the Fed."

Ms. Bessant said it is hypocritical for activists to suggest that merger supporters be excluded.

"Limiting testimony to only opponents seems to me to fly in the face of having a full record," she said. "I see no reason why views of someone opposing the merger are more valid to someone who supports it."

Mr. Skillern of the Durham Affordable Housing Coalition's said he only hopes the Fed pays attention.

"My faith that the Federal Reserve will listen is not strong because of their history of approving mergers," he said. "But it is the best chance we have."

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