Vermont's utility regulators are holding a hearing next month in one of the final legal challenges to the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline project, and the public isn’t allowed to attend.
The hearing is for legal arguments on whether the regulators should allow the company to build its pipeline through Geprags Park, a public park in Hinesburg. Geprags is the final major challenge standing in the way of the pipeline’s completion, and CEO Don Rendall said this week that the pipeline may not finish this year if Vermont Gas can’t get rights to build in the park.
The Public Service Board announced this week that those legal arguments won’t take place in front of the public. The board took the rare step of barring members of the public from attending because of disruptions by protestors at other proceedings related to the pipeline.
Lisa Barrett, a retired legal aid lawyer from Huntington, says she's against the pipeline, but she's interested in the August hearing for other reasons too.
“I do walk my dogs regularly in Geprags Park, and I actually walk over on the end of the park where they're planning to put the pipeline,” she says.
Barrett says that as she started looking into the pipeline, she heard questions about the integrity of the Public Service Board, which is supposed to regulate Vermont Gas and other utilities.
“I have been told that the Public Service Board seems to be in the pocket of Vermont Gas,” Barrett said, "and I want to see for myself. I haven't been to one of these hearings.”
But according to an order from the Public Service Board this week, Barrett can't see for herself.
The board says that because there have been so many disruptions in recent proceedings, caused by protestors speaking out against the pipeline, there was no choice but to close the public out of the hearing.
The board order says that if the hearing wasn’t closed, the board would be jeopardizing the due process rights of the people who are involved in the case.
According to the board order, the public's access to the meeting consists of calling a toll-free number and listening to the hearing.
Lisa Barrett doesn't buy into that logic.
“There's not legitimate reason to exclude the public,” she says. “This is the public service board.”
The decision to ban all public access was surprising to Barrett and other people closely following the case, since no one involved had even suggested that as a possibility.
When the board asked everyone involved with the case what to do about the disruptions, even Vermont Gas and the Department of Public Service – the targets of the criticisms leveled by protestors – wanted to keep the hearings open.
Chris Recchia, the commissioner of the Department of Public Service, says he can't remember a time when the board blocked public access to hearings.
“We very much feel like the public should be able to continue to be present at these hearings, so we're disappointed at the need to do this,” Recchia says
But he says the board's order showed that officials contacted law enforcement to ask for help and sought other venues for the hearing and ultimately reached a conclusion that there's no other way to make the hearing go smoothly.
No privately owned venues wanted to host the hearing because of fears about protestors, the board's order said, so they had no choice but to close the hearing and offer up a call-in number for the public.
Still, Barrett doesn't think that's enough public access.
“For the same reason that the board isn't holding the hearing by phone," Barrett says. "The board wants to be able to assess the testimony by seeing facial expressions, seeing body language. We the public should be able to do the same thing.”
Instead, the hearing site in Berlin will be closed to the public and guarded by law enforcement. Those attending are required to bring photo IDs and submit the license plate numbers of the vehicles they plan to arrive in before the hearings.
Barrett says she's hoping the board will reverse its order and allow public attendance.
If it doesn't, the Public Service Board will decide if Vermont Gas can build through a public park based on legal arguments made outside of public view.
Clarification 9:58 a.m. This post was edited to reflect that the board order blocks public access to a single hearing, not multiple hearings.