"The public, then, has a genuine (as opposed to prurient)interest in knowing what goes on in that hotel meeting-room – what the officials say and what the business leaders say to them, the questions asked, the concerns expressed, the opinions offered. Fuhgeddaboudit."
Changes To ACCD Also On Agenda.
Free Press Editorial
This is Vermont, where (with a few exceptions of course) everybody is nice.
Why not? Life is nice here; niceness inspires niceness. Nice people don’t make much trouble.
This characteristic applies to journalism and its practitioners, most of whom are nice, and who therefore make little trouble, even when they should.
Now they should. Herewith, an attempt to make trouble.
From nine in the morning to (roughly) four in the afternoon on Thursday, Vermont business leaders will meet at the Capitol Plaza Hotel across the street from the State House in downtown Montpelier with senior state officials – including Jonathan Wood, the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, who is scheduled to be the lunch speaker – to discuss “major regulatory developments.”
A bland enough term, but one with real-life consequences. Even minor regulatory developments help determine the extent of Lake Champlain’s pollution, the preservation of wetlands, how many historic buildings will be saved from the wrecker’s ball.
Thursday’s meeting, according to its chief sponsor, the Associated Industries of Vermont, will pay special attention to “concerns surrounding archeological rules in Vermont and rule revisions being proposed by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.”
Those rule revisions are controversial. Archeologists and their supporters argue that the proposed changes would eliminate preservation on “ lands that have potential (archeological) sites, and restrict it to known sites. That leaves us only investigating areas where there are known historical sites,” said John Crock, an archeology professor at the University of Vermont.
Not so, said David Mace, Director of Communications at the Commerce Agency. The proposed changes, he said, are largely “clarifying what already exists in statute,” at the direction of the legislature.
Either way, Thursday’s conference will provide an opportunity for partisans on one side of the debate – the side that wants to “clarify”( or weaken as the case may be) the rules– to spend several hours presenting their case to some of the very officials who will make the final (though not quite irrevocable) decision.
The event, in short, is newsworthy. Not just in the sense of appealing to the public’s curiosity, like a celebrity wedding or (as recently seen) funeral, either. This is an event likely to influence government officials as they make public policy. At the very least, it will provide some people the opportunity to try to convince those government officials to make the public policy the guests want.
The public, then, has a genuine (as opposed to prurient )interest in knowing what goes on in that hotel meeting-room – what the officials say and what the business leaders say to them, the questions asked, the concerns expressed, the opinions offered.
The proceedings may be important to the public, but they are closed to the public and to the public’s eyes and ears – the press.
“It’s not some sort of press event,” said Bill Driscoll, one of AIV’s several registered lobbyists and its spokesperson.
“It’s not like any sort of official meeting, “ he said. It’s a seminar. It’s not an event for (government) agency folks to listen to us as much as an event for us to listen to agency folks. People come with the expectation that it’s going to be an off-the-record meeting.”
Let’s recapitulate. The highest-ranking environmental official in the state of Vermont plus the general council of two Agencies plus the deputy commissioner of a department are going to speak in the meeting-room of a public accommodation
to a fairly large number of people (the hotel’s Montpelier Room would seem to have room for at least 100), most of whom have a vested interest in what those officials decide to do about the subject on the agenda.
And it’s all going to be secret.
And nobody’s complaining.
Let’s not get carried away. Everything that is happening is legal. The Capitol Plaza is a privately owned public accommodation and the event’s sponsors – VELCO, the engineering firm ECS and the law firm Paul Frank and Collins, as well as AIV – are private firms not bound by any open meeting laws.
Nothing illegal and nothing corrupt, at least as the word is commonly used. As Driscoll said, “if people wanted to exert influence, they’d be better off picking up the phone and calling (a state official).”
In fact, almost everything Driscoll said was reasonable and courteous (as he has been in past telephone conversations), and no doubt he was telling the truth when he pronounced himself “at a little bit of a loss” in understanding the News Guy’s (perhaps excessive) insistence that the event ought to be open.
The one thing he said that was obviously false (though perhaps technically true) was that the conference “would not be a lobbying event.”
In that most of the guests (he being an exception) will not be official lobbyists, probably right. In that they will not try to convince the officials that they are right and the archeologists and environmentalists wrong, nonsense. Of course they will. They’d be fools if they didn’t.
But the purpose here is not to criticize Driscoll, who was doing his job, nor AIV and the other sponsors, who are doing theirs.
Is the government?
Are the news organizations?
The officials who are scheduled to attend the gathering could not be reached. The spokespersons for their agencies, David Mace for Commerce and Sabina Haskell, the Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources, said they knew of no policy suggesting that public officials not appear at conferences closed to reporters. In fact, they both seemed puzzled by the very notion.
“It hasn’t come up,” Haskell said.
Both said that as far as they knew none of the officials planned to release a text or a transcript of their remarks.
In fact, such gatherings would appear to be routine in Montpelier. As does journalistic acceptance of them. From what Driscoll, Mace, and Haskell said, reporters have not complained about such closed conferences, nor sought entry to them.
There is a difference between nice and wimpy.
Three quick points: First, this has nothing to do with the privileges of journalists, who have none. It has everything to do with the obligation of journalists, one of which is to tell the public (because no one else can) who is trying to influence the process of making public policy, and how they’re trying to do it.
Second, of course people have the right to meet privately with state officials. They do it all the time, in offices and over lunches for two or three. Fine. That’s not the same as inviting some scores of people to listen to speeches by senior government officials in a quasi-public setting. Driscoll said Jonathan Wood’s appearance was not really a “speech.” It’s billed on AIV’s web site as an “address.” That’s a speech.
Arguably, these interest groups have the “right” to hold such gatherings in secret, too. Reporters have the obligation to protest. I protest.
Third, in response to the challenge of one state official, yes, the same standard has to be applied to all interest groups. If an environmental organization or a union were to hold a similar event, reporters should seek to cover it. Paul Burns of VPIRG and Jake Brown of the Vermont Natural Resources Council said their organizations have not kept the press out of such gatherings, and would not.
Briefly, the News Guy thought of invading the conference and daring the organizers to throw him out. But that would be impolite (even the News Guy isn’t all that not nice). Besides, reporters should cover the story. They should not be the story.
But I’ll be there Thursday morning. Asking (courteously) to be allowed to cover the event. Failing that, asking the state officials if they really think they ought to speak at a closed meeting, and at least asking them what they say.
All other Vermont reporters with gumption are invited.
Any gumption around here?