Gas company manipulated rules
On Sept. 10, Bill Fifield, a retired family doctor, made sure to get in line early at the Addison fracked-gas pipeline public hearing in Middlebury — an hour early. He knew the rules: First come, first speak. He was third in line. While dozens waited, missing out on the rally outside, a buzz started down the line that the Public Service Board 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 unless there was time at the end.
The plan to cherry-pick the speaker list — if true — 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, many people who had followed the rules by coming early would not get a chance to speak, and pipeline supporters would unjustly skip ahead.
In this debate over the fracked-gas pipeline, Vermont Gas Systems 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 refused to be tricked out of it. Many people in line decided that they had no choice but to make a small act of civil disobedience in order to actualize their right to speak in the order they arrived to the hearing.
After everyone had signed up and filed into the hearing room, it was revealed that the rumor was true: The PSB intended to alternate positions. However well-intentioned the rule might have been initially, it was clear that the result would have been a highly skewed evening. During the first hour, which sets the tone, all 10 of the people testifying in support of the pipeline would have spoken. It would have come across as an evenhanded debate. But it was not. More than 70 were there to speak against the pipeline, and most of them had diligently lined up before the supporters got there. Organizers asked me to help people in line if they needed it, so I was there. I know who got there early.
Some of us marked the signup sheet to ensure our right to speak in the truthful order we arrived, per the PSB’s established practices. By a narrow definition, we lied by saying either we supported the project or did not speak in March. But we were trapped, without any advance notice, by a capricious and unprecedented rule that would have falsely represented the reality of the project’s opposition. Notorious sticklers for rules and regulations, the last minute change was an astounding showing from the PSB. They never would have condoned such behavior from anyone else.
So, as it happened, a large majority of people testified against the pipeline, and the media reported accurately that the opposition had dominated the evening. The media, however, did not know how to report on the sleight-of-hand rule change by the PSB and their patronizing reprimand, which went unquestioned by the media.
Steve Wark of Vermont Gas Systems exploited reporters’ lack of information about the process and claimed that pipeline supporters “were locked out of testifying because so many opponents signed up on the supporter’s side of the list.” No supporter was denied the chance to speak if they joined the line early, right along with the rest. Some may have been overwhelmed by the scale of the opposition and given up, gone home. But the only ones “shut out” were early signers who suddenly did not qualify to speak under the new rules hustled up at the last minute for the occasion.
Bill, as he says, is a Boy Scout, and although he fully understood that the questions on the signup sheet could disenfranchise him, he answered truthfully because he believed reason would prevail. They skipped his name and I, fourth on the list, spoke third. Bill waited patiently all night to see if they might come back around to his name. They did not.
Who should be ashamed?
Rebecca Foster is a resident of Charlotte.