Bennington Sen. Bob Hartwell is proposing the creation of an advocate’s office — independent from the governor — that would represent members of the public in energy permitting proceedings.
The proposal took center stage at the first legislative meeting on the possible revamping of the Vermont Public Service Board’s permitting process for energy generation projects.
The issue was a hot topic of debate last legislative session. What began as a proposed moratorium on utility-scale wind projects and an overhaul of the energy permitting process ended in a bill calling for meetings to consider the proposal.
Top environmental and energy regulators for the Shumlin administration kicked off the Senate and House Natural Resources and Energy committees on Wednesday by briefing the legislators on the final report issued by a governor-ordered siting commission. The commission recommended 28 measures for revising the energy permitting process, including simpler procedures for smaller projects and heightened transparency. To learn more about the commission and its report, read this story.
Few of the committee members had positive things to say about the report that the commission spent months creating.
Hartwell, who chairs the Senate committee, homed in on a prospect that the commission had not proposed — creating an office separate from the governor to represent members of the public in the Public Service Board’s process.
“The way it stands politically and structurally right now, it doesn’t work,” Hartwell said about the board’s process in an interview. “I’m still concerned the siting policy commission and the report skirts around the public advocate issue.”
The Public Service Department is charged with representing the public before the board, but the department is run by the governor’s administration and therefore toes the governor’s line.
Hartwell told Commissioner of Public Service Chris Recchia, who runs the department, that he is concerned this political connection is inhibiting the public process.
“It’s independent from the board,” Recchia said at the hearing.
“It’s not independent from the administration,” Hartwell responded.
“Of course not — nothing is going to be,” Recchia said. “This is the system we have for all of our departments. I take the public service, not Public Service Department, but the public service role very seriously. This is what I do for a living.”
The Public Service Board, however, is different from another quasi-judicial body. The Green Mountain Care Board regulates hospital projects and insurance rate changes in a very similar way to how the Public Service Board regulates energy projects, but this past legislative session, the Legislature decided to create the Office of the Health Care Advocate, which replaces the office of the health care ombudsman. The advocate’s office is responsible for representing the public in board proceedings for insurance rates and hospital projects.
The independent office is contracted out to a third party, which is currently the non-profit law firm Vermont Legal Aid. The House Health Care Committee deliberately created the office in this manner to add some padding between the public advocate and the governor’s agenda. The administration does, however, hold the office’s purse strings — deciding what entity gets the contract for the office. In recent years, Vermont Legal Aid has been the only bid for the Ombudsman’s Office.
Hartwell said he would look at this model and others this upcoming legislative session.
During Wednesday’s hearing, the senators in the room dominated the conversation.
Rep. Tony Klein, D-Montpelier, chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, and he is a strong and vocal player in the Statehouse. While the senators fired off questions at administration officials, Klein sat pensively.
Klein, a long proponent of renewable energy, said in an interview that the legislative hearings were the product of a bill that — in part — sought to quash the development of utility scale wind projects in Vermont. He said the vocal resistance in parts of the state to large-scale wind development catalyzed the meetings, not necessarily the process.
“I’m fine with it all,” Klein said about the siting commission report and Hartwell’s proposal. “I just don’t think any of it gets to the heart of people’s problems, or troubles, or the heart of the matter. I don’t think we’re taking it head on. For better or worse, I’d rather take it head on than beat around the bush.”
What is “it?”
“Renewable energy policy and what’s renewable in this state,” Klein said. “I hear biomass isn’t renewable anymore. Solar? That’s bad because it’s using agricultural lands. And wind we know all about.”