When I was first elected to public office at the age of 37, I was lucky enough to have a mentor, Tom Lehner, who had spent most of his career in public administration. I first met him when I was a young law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Louis Peck and he was the court administrator. Tom took seriously the obligation of government to look out for all Vermonters – especially those who could not easily speak up for themselves. I remember how he would raise his eyebrows at me when I was about to move ahead without fully considering all of the unintended consequences of a decision. He would say, “Remember Deb, what you see will depend upon where you are sitting.”
Tom was teaching me a lesson in leadership – that great leaders take time to listen. To be most effective, it is important to understand issues from the perspective of all Vermonters, not just from those rich or practiced enough to participate in public debate. This advice sounds simple, but I have seen how difficult it can be to put into practice.
It is human nature to see the world through the lens of our own life experiences; we tend to listen to and trust the advice of our own experts and those who share our values. It can be uncomfortable to have our opinions challenged, but this is exactly why it is important for government officials to make it easy for the public to get involved.
There has been a long history in our country of ordinary citizens speaking out and organizing against threats to public health and the environment. Examples from across the country include Love Canal in New York, a town built on a toxic chemical dumpsite, and Hinkley, California, a small farming community affected by groundwater pollution from a nearby gas plant. In Vermont, highly toxic chemicals from an old dry cleaning facility in Williamstown contaminated the soil and groundwater. In all of these cases, and many more, grassroots organizations played an important role in protecting health, communities and nature.
Advocates and nonprofit organizations ensure that Vermonters have the tools and resources needed to participate in decisions that impact their communities and our Vermont way of life. This is why at the Agency of Natural Resources, we are finding ways to increase public participation in our decision-making.
This year, we have brought to the legislature a proposal to reform our permitting process. Our goal is to simplify the notice and comment periods so that it is easier for neighbors and community members to learn about projects and get involved. Other changes will ensure that we develop a transparent record that explains the basis of our decisions and that projects requiring multiple permits can be coordinated, making it easier to participate in public hearings. We are increasing opportunities for stakeholders to meet with agency staff early in the permitting process so we can take into account their concerns. We also hope to get legislative support to establish a reconsideration process for decisions made by the agency that Vermonters can navigate without a lawyer.
These changes will be good for the agency and good for Vermont. By increasing the opportunity for Vermonters to participate, our decision-making will be more transparent. With more process up front, there will be less need for costly law suits. But the most important reason for creating systems that encourage public involvement is that the decisions themselves will be better.
Over the years, I have come to understand how important it is that Vermonters have equal access to the administrative and judicial process. I have also seen how difficult and expensive these proceedings can be and how we must continue to encourage our citizen activists. As environmental pioneer, Donella Meadows has said “No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.”
Deb Markowitz, secretary, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources