Vermont’s Public Service Board is considering closing the public out of some hearings related to the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline to Addison County, according to a board order.
The order refers to “disruptions that occurred during recent prehearing conferences” in which members of the public “protested the proceedings by shouting, singing loudly and leaving their seats to crowd the physical space around many of the parties and the court reporter.”
As a result of those disruptions, the board is asking the parties to the cases – the people who have legal standing before the board – what to do about conduct at the hearings.
The board order explicitly asks parties to consider the possibility of barring members of the public from observing the work the Public Service Board and the Department of Public Service do on their behalf.
“In developing their recommendations, parties should consider options ranging from mechanisms for maintaining order in the hearing room with full public access allowed, up to and including prohibiting access to the hearing room by the general public during the course of official State business in these proceedings,” the board’s order said.
James Dumont, an attorney representing multiple landowners in the eminent domain proceedings, questioned the constitutionality of barring the public.
In his response to the board order, Dumont said keeping the public out of hearings “would be inappropriate under the First Amendment, Chapter 1, Article 6 of the Vermont Constitution, and the Open Meetings Law.”
Dumont’s response also recognizes the board’s need to smoothly go about its business.
“As to maintaining order during the proceedings, of course the Board must take whatever steps are necessary,” Dumont wrote. “But the Board’s response should not have the effect of limiting peaceful public observation of and debate about the Board’s proceedings.”
Rising Tide Vermont, an activist group that has staged a number of demonstrations opposing the Vermont Gas pipeline, has staged many protests against the pipeline, including some that have ended with demonstrators arrested.
Will Bennington, an organizer with Rising Tide, said that keeping members of the public out of board proceedings is “just straight-up illegal.”
Bennington said the activists disrupting the hearings are taking what seems to be the only workable approach to reaching their goal of having the pipeline cancelled.
“I think that people are really wanting to make a point that it’s totally absurd that the board is allowing Vermont Gas, a private company, to use eminent domain to build a fossil fuel pipeline when we’re experiencing the warmest winter on record. So I think anything that people are doing to try to stop this pretty egregious effort from moving forward is fairly justified.”
Bennington said the state bodies that are supposed to protect the public and represent the public interest – the Public Service Board and the Department of Public Service – have proven throughout the pipeline proceedings that they aren’t doing enough.
“The board and the Department of Public Service have continued to show that they don’t quite get it when it comes to public opinion, and this is what’s going to happen when you ignore the public for too long on an issue,” he said.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said this week that the company plans to file a response to the board’s order soliciting input, but she refused to comment on the company’s position until after the filing.
The deadline for the filings is Thursday. As of 3:43 Wednesday afternoon, Public Service Board Clerk Judith Whitney said neither Vermont Gas nor the Department of Public Service had filed a response.
Correction 8:34 a.m. March 31, 2016 An earlier version of this story misidentified James Dumont's clients in the eminent domain proceedings. The error has been corrected.