Federal Judge Orders Public Service Board To Open Vermont Gas Hearing

Aug 2, 2016

A U.S. District Court judge in Burlington has ordered the Vermont Public Service Board to allow the public to attend Thursday's hearing on the Vermont Gas pipeline project.

This comes after the board made a controversial decision in mid-July to close the hearing to the public after activists and protestors disrupted earlier board proceedings.

At Thursday's hearing the board will take testimony from parties for and against the use of eminent domain to allow Vermont Gas Systems to build its natural gas pipeline through wetlands in Geprags Park in Hinesburg.

"I think it is so important for the public to be able to see their government in operation, particularly in a controversial case like this," says Lisa Barrett, the plaintiff who filed the lawsuit. Barrett, now retired, is a former Vermont Assistant Attorney General.. 

"I am opposed to pipeline, and I thinks its really important for those of us who are opposed to the pipeline to be able to evaluate the process and see the hearings."

After protestors interrupted previous public hearings with loud singing and other disruptions, the board had closed the Aug. 4 hearing to the public, although it said it would provide a call-in number for members of the public to listen to the proceedings. 

Barrett says that the board at the time did not ask the sheriff to arrest the protestors for disorderly conduct, which it had the right to do, and instead later moved to close the upcoming hearing to the public.

In the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss said that Barrett has not previously disrupted a board hearing, and she is not a party to the Vermont Gas pipeline proceedings. Barrett says she has advised citizens groups and she does plan to attend the Aug. 4 hearing to witness the proceeding. 

"I think it is so important for the public to be able to see their government in operation, particularly in a controversial case like this." -Lisa Barrett, the plaintiff who filed the lawsuit

In the expedited ruling issued just a week and a half after the case was filed, Reiss ruled Monday that barring the public from attending the hearing violates "the public's First Amendment right to access a quasi-adjudicative hearing."

Department of Public Service Commissioner Christopher Recchia says the board's July decision to ban the public was an attempt to ensure that the hearing ran smoothly, allowing the board to make a fair decision and hear all parties.  

"They were looking for a way to make sure the public had access to (the hearing), but could not disrupt the proceedings, so that was their thinking."

Recchia says he believes the judge understood that concern, yet "where she was coming down was much like the department— feeling like these should be open to the public."

Recchia says if there is disruption or disorderly conduct that interrupts proceedings, then law enforcement needs to be responsible for taking action, which means people could be arrested.

"And I think the board was trying very hard to avoid that, but that is essentially the judge's ruling on how that should go."

Another pending case that could influence Thursday's hearing involves a petition filed by Vermont Gas Systems to revoke the "intervenor status" of the "Protect Geprags Park" citizens group. This would effectively prohibit the anti-pipeline group from presenting their case at the board hearing Thursday. It's expected that a decision on this motion will be decided in the next two days.