St. Albans Messenger Editorial, February 2, 2016
When the moneyed interests encounter an opposing force, they do what they have always done, which is to silence that opposing force.
In Vermont, and in this particular case, the moneyed interests are the renewable energy folks and the opposing force is Annette Smith.
They want her silenced. In an Associated Press story it was reported she is now the target of a criminal investigation. The renewable energy folks contend she is practicing law without a license before the Public Service Board.
Ms. Smith is no doubt a thorn in the side of those proposing large-scale wind and solar projects. She understands the system. She has complete fluency with the rules that apply to the process. She is effective and she has been successful.
She also understands what is in play. She is the target of the lawsuit and thus is cautious in how she responds. She would only characterize the claim as “a government-sponsored SLAPP suit.” The acronym means “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”
It is not clear who stands behind the complaint. But the Associated Press story notes the involvement of the law firm that represents David Blittersdorf, one of Vermont’s largest solar and wind developers.
Mr. Blittersdorf, in particular, has felt Ms. Smith’s sting. She has been helpful to those who have opposed his various large-scale projects. If there is a voice that gives rise to the opposition, it’s hers.
And there is no voice he’d rather have fall silent. That, in part, explains the complaint. He knows where to apply the pressure. Mr. Blittersdorf has also been a strong political supporter of the governor, among others. He knows how to bring the renewable energy “committee” along for the ride.
That said, the suit against Ms. Smith is probably the stupidest move imaginable. It is sophomoric; a lashing out suffused by the boast that money and power trump all, that opposition is something to be stamped out, that those who oppose them are beneath them, and to be dismissed.
To borrow a phrase from the current presidential race: It’s Trumpian. What the complaint does is make Ms. Smith a hero. She is now the David against the goliaths. They have single-handedly given her cult status. They have ceded her a good share of their power. She’s the lady from Danby who milks her cow by hand and powers her home with a small solar installation. She’s the unassuming lady who is as comfortable before the Public Service Board as any hired attorney. And she doesn’t cost $250 an hour to those who can’t afford $250 an hour representation.
If anyone doubted her capabilities before, they do not now. They have given her star power.
Ms. Smith has not only annoyed Mr. Blittersdorf, she’s also been a staunch opponent of Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, a force with deeper pockets and more political power than the renewable energy folks.
So how did GMP respond to the complaint that Ms. Smith is operating beyond her legal bounds?
“…we [GMP] have ardently disagreed with some of Annette Smith’s positions, but we have never witnessed her crossing any line beyond what active citizens do. We appreciate the passion she brings to the public debate and believe her perspective is an important one.
“What sets Vermont apart from other places is that we respect each other as we work through tough issues even when it’s uncomfortable and hard. GMP believes that we must be willing to have those conversations as part of the process so that we can achieve our shared goal of reaching the best possible outcome for Vermonters.”
There it is. We have one group that believes in the right of free speech, and one that doesn’t. We have one force that believes in the power of a public debate, and we have one that prefers to silence the debate.
This difference is fundamental to how Vermont deals with its issues. If the moneyed interests in the renewable energy sector can use their power to silence the Annette Smiths, then others will use the example to silence those who threaten their interests, regardless of the cause.
Is that how Montpelier runs? Is that an acceptable profile for Vermont?
This is not a meaningless issue. Those in power should not cower in the shadows pretending they cannot comment on legal matters. This is something that strikes at the heart of the public conversation. This is not how Vermont does business.
Or is it? The fact that the governor’s office has not reacted is worrisome. The silence is deafening.
Tell us, Gov. Peter Shumlin, this isn’t something that carries your stamp of approval.
by Emerson Lynn