By Chris Bradley
Beginning at 5:30 PM on February 10, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee (SNR&EC) held what was called a “public hearing”, conducted entirely through Zoom, to solicit input on several controversial bills that they are considering. These bills are S.129 (Restructure of the F&W Board); S.201 (ban on foothold traps) and S.281 (ban on hunting coyote with dogs).
To be accurate, however, the SNR&E Committee initially tried to hold this “public hearing” on Wednesday 2/2, only announcing it late on Friday 1/28, but then not being able to fully confirm until the morning of the 1/31: Two business days before the supposed hearing. The Federation noted this and immediately objected, notifying both Senate Pro Tempore Balint and Chair Bray that this was not appropriate due to a number of concerns. These would include: a short notice period, the inability for folks to gather in person, the lack of any immediate need, and rural internet concerns.
On this last point, the Vermont Public Service Department reports that 23% of Vermonters cannot get internet speeds which are suitable for connections such as Zoom, and let’s face it, most of the people with input on the three bills are quite likely to live in rural Vermont.
Did I mention lack of any apparent immediate need?
Our concerns were apparently heard, and the hearing on 2/2 was cancelled. They, however, just turned around and re-scheduled it for the 10th.
What happened on the 10th can only be described as an abject failure, and you can watch it here. It started with a failed sign-up process, a process whose initial limit was set so low that a large number of people reported that they were prevented from signing up by being blocked with a “sign-up full” message.
We now understand that subsequent to the sign-up being initially set up with a limit that was quickly reached, at some LATER point the limit was raised to 300 without any notice to anyone we are aware of. By then, however, the damage had been done; many, who wanted to speak, had given up due to the “full” message they had received previously.
Had this “public hearing” been adequately planned, speakers and backup speakers would have all been confirmed beforehand with adequate notice. The rules were simple: No attacking language and each speaker would be given two minutes, with “FOR” and “AGAINST” speakers alternating. Theoretically, the committee should have/could have heard from at least 50 people, 25 “FOR” and 25 “AGAINST”, while still allowing for time for introductions and switching / delays.
Of the first 23 people called, 10 were absent. According to the alternating rule, 5 of those absent would have been “FOR” with the other 5 “AGAINST”. After number 23 however, the next seven speakers were all mysteriously speakers who were “FOR”. After speaker 30, the behind-the-scenes moderator stated that the list of speakers had been exhausted, but then stated that there were uninvited people in the waiting room.
How those uninvited people could be waiting there when the zoom link and call-in phone number was never published (it was by invite only) remains an open question, but the chair allowed them to speak anyway. All 5 were “FOR”. Huh? How was that allowed to happen?
Net result: A scheduled 2-hour “public hearing” lasted 1 hour and 13 minutes, including introduction, numerous delays and the closing. Instead of hearing from what could have been 50 speakers, only 25 were heard. Of those 25, and for a hearing advertised to hear equally from both sides, 18 spoke “FOR”, with only 7 being able to speak “AGAINST”.
In the history of public hearings at the statehouse, I believe that the third largest was in relation to firearm laws being passed. I believe the second largest was the issue of Civil Union. I believe the issue that drew the biggest crowd in recent history was when the legislature was last seriously contemplating banning trapping. It appears we may have to do that again.
By all accounts, except of course by those that did not play by the rules, this “public hearing” was a failure, and needs to be remembered as such. Yes, the business of government needs to continue, and it can muddle along using zoom to accomplish that.
Issues that are known to be controversial and sensitive; issues that there is no apparent immediate need for; issues that could and would draw out many in opposition if a true Public Hearing was held: These should not be handled under the control of Zoom. It is simply bad form, but at least a box can now be checked that says “We did a ‘Public Hearing’”.
The author is the president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.