Editor’s note: Charlotte resident Rebecca Foster is a member of the town’s energy committee and writes a column for The Citizen, a weekly newspaper for Charlotte and Hinesburg.
By this week I thought we had moved onto more substantive arguments, but proponents of the gas pipeline expansion are still promoting a misconception of what happened on Sept. 10 in Middlebury where the second of two public hearings on the matter was held (i.e., Feuerstein: In support of the Addison County gas pipeline, Sept. 17.) Let me take you behind the scenes so you can see what actually happened.
Bill Fifield, a retired family doctor, made sure to get in line early —an hour early. He knew the rules: First come, first speak. He was third in line. Dozens were there, anxious after months of waiting, to get their chance to address the Public Service Board. It didn’t matter that they were missing the rally outside. A disconcerting buzz started, however, that the PSB was going to ask two additional questions on the signup sheet: Do you support or oppose the project? Did you speak at the March hearing? Rumor had it that the PSB would use this information to alternate speakers who were pro and con, and skip over altogether those who had spoken at the previous hearing.
The plan to cherry-pick the speaker list — if true — was not, actually, believable. It was not warned. It was not included in the PSB’s definitive memorandum issued on Aug. 30 in which it said it would “apply its established procedures” at the hearing. Members of the public who wanted to speak, the memo said, needed to write down their name and town of residence, period.
Many opponents of the project had joined the line early, but few supporters. A concern grew that if the rumor were true, the people who had diligently come early would not get a chance to speak, and pipeline supporters in the back of the line would unjustly skip ahead.
More than 70 were there to speak against the pipeline, most of whom lined up ahead of the supporters. I was there. I saw. I also saw supporters hanging back at the end of the line.
In this debate over the fracked gas pipeline, Vermont Gas Systems (VGS) has the advantage of money, connections, and a general lack of awareness by the public. This was the last chance to make a public statement and people who had researched and planned for months knew they had to do one simple thing in order to be heard, and it didn’t require money or connections: They had to arrive early. But when it started to look as if they were going to be tricked out of speaking after all, many decided they had no choice but to make a small act of civil disobedience to speak in the order they arrived.
After everyone had signed up and filed into the hearing room, we learned the rumor was true: The PSB intended to alternate positions. Had their last-minute change of protocol been followed by everyone who signed up, it would have been a highly skewed evening. During the first hour, which sets the tone for the hearing, the 10 people testifying in support of the pipeline would have spoken, and it would have looked like an evenhanded debate. But it was not evenhanded. Not by a long shot. More than 70 were there to speak against the pipeline, most of whom lined up ahead of the supporters. I was there. I saw. I also saw supporters hanging back at the end of the line. We couldn’t understand why. In retrospect I have to wonder if they were confident they would get to speak regardless of their position in line because they had foreknowledge of the newly-concocted rule.
The rest of us were trapped, without advance notice, by a capricious and unprecedented rule that would have misrepresented the project’s opposition. Notorious sticklers for rules and regulations, the make-it-up-as-you-go-along change was an astounding showing from the PSB. They never would have condoned such behavior in others. I suppose their patronizing rebuke of those who falsely signed up as “supporters” arose from their anger at being thwarted by the true majority, which insisted on its democratic right to speak.
Relentlessly, one opponent after the other got up to speak, and the media reported accurately that the opposition dominated the evening. But they did not know how to report on the sleight of hand by the PSB. Steve Wark of VGS exploited reporters’ lack of information and claimed that pipeline supporters “were locked out of testifying because so many opponents signed up on the supporter’s side of the list.”
Let me be clear: The people denied a chance to speak by the PSB — the only people — were pipeline opponents who suddenly did not qualify under the new rules hustled up for the occasion. They were skipped over. Some supporters may have been overwhelmed by the scale of the opposition and of their own accord given up, gone home. Their “unfair” plight could have been solved easily by doing what the opposition did: get in line first.
At 68, Bill Fifield still calls himself a Boy Scout, and although he fully understood that the questions on the signup sheet could disenfranchise him, he answered truthfully because he trusted that reason would prevail. Reason did not prevail. The PSB skipped his name and I, fourth on the list, spoke third. Bill waited patiently all night for them to come back around to his name. They did not.
The PSB tricked Bill, the third man in line, out of his democratic right to speak. Who should be ashamed?