By Carl Etnier
I’ve been talking with quite a few voters recently, and a number of people have raised questions about a recent decision by the Public Service Board (PSB) to exclude the public from an Aug. 4 hearing about the Vermont Gas pipeline. These voters are right to be concerned.
The pipeline is a $166 million step in the wrong direction. It makes Vermont more dependent on importing fracked natural gas, at a time when we’re working to get 90% of our energy from renewables by 2050. It’s a big deal. Excluding the public from a hearing like this is the sort of move I’d expect from a Trump presidency, not from a board created by Vermont lawmakers.
The PSB’s reasons for excluding the public were that they feared protestors would disrupt the hearing. The fear is not unfounded. At prehearing conferences related to the pipeline, the PSB notes, members of the public shouted and sang loudly, which made it difficult to hear each other and get anything done.
The PSB sought advice from the parties in the case about how to conduct business with all these folks singing and shouting. And then the PSB devised a solution that was more anti-democratic than anyone it consulted with contemplated. Not even Vermont Gas asked for the public to be excluded altogether.
Initially, the PSB was going to allow the press and the public to listen in on the hearing via phone. Anyone who has ever phoned into a live meeting knows how much is missed by not seeing facial expressions and body language—or often not being able to tell who a speaker is.
The PSB modified its order, so members of the press were allowed to attend in person. And a YouTube channel broadcasted the hearing live to anyone with a computer and broadband—at least that portion of the hearing the camera(s) happen to be pointed at.
A YouTube stream does not give as much information as being there in the room. The PSB implicitly acknowledges this by allowing the press into the hearing room. Since the press gets more information by being in the room, they can do better reporting for the rest of us.
The general public was given a choice of experiencing the hearing through the filter of the YouTube stream or the filter of the press in attendance.
Are the folks who have been shouting and singing loudly interested in observing the PSB activities? Surely not; they’re interested in disrupting the whole permitting process. But government has a responsibility to keep its meetings open and transparent to those who are interested in observing. Closing the door on everyone because of some protests is a form of collective punishment, inappropriate for a democracy. You and I and everyone else are targeted by an order that, rightfully, should be targeted only at people who are actually disrupting the hearing. The Burlington Free Press says the PSB’s response makes it appear “arrogant and weak,” and they’re right.
The legislature doesn’t shut out the public from the Statehouse when there are protests—they simply beef up security. The PSB opted not to remove just the people disrupting the hearing, saying it would take a lot of cops to do so. Well, OK. That’s a price of democracy.
The Secretary of State’s office has said the PSB is allowed to close its hearings to the public, since it’s a “quasi-judicial” entity. Pipeline opponent and attorney Lisa Barrett has filed a case in federal court to open up the hearing. If it turns out that neither Vermont statute nor the federal courts protect the public’s right to attend PSB hearings, it’s imperative that Vermont lawmakers open up the doors of the PSB and let more sunshine in.
Carl Etnier works at Goddard College Community Radio and is running for legislature to represent East Montpelier and Middlesex.