Annette Smith, the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, has long been a thorn in the side of utilities, energy producers, and even politicians.
Smith is above all an activist. And she’s dogged. She has taken the time to learn the process regulating large-scale energy projects such as wind and solar. Importantly, she has also come to represent, and be a voice for, Vermonters who are impacted by these large projects, who cannot afford well-heeled lawyers and who are not being heard in the process. Her organization operates on little funding, and her team is mostly made up of volunteers. They are frequently the minority opposition, but they are organized, engaged and vocal.
In Vermont this type of activism is commonplace, accepted, and even encouraged. Certainly, Sen. Bernie Sanders knows this better than anyone. His passion and outspokenness on matters of inequality have taken him to the top of presidential politics. His message is not unlike Smith’s. He’s committed to exposing what he calls a rigged economic and political system. This is precisely Smith’s message regarding our energy permitting process. She claims the quasi-judicial permitting process is rigged in favor of utilities and wealthy developers and against the participation of average everyday Vermonters and local communities.
Recently, her advocacy against industrial wind and the placement of wind turbines on the tops of Vermont’s mountains has drawn the ire of the lawyers representing wind developers. A secret complaint against Smith has been filed with the attorney general’s office. The complaint alleges she has practiced law without a license. And now there is a criminal investigation under way.
No one knows, including Smith, who her accuser is although several well-connected and prominent lawyers representing energy development clients and Vermont utilities have made public statements saying she deserves to be investigated. One lawyer has publicly offered to testify against her, with her client’s permission.
In a state where we have citizen legislators making laws; where a Vermonter can seek and hold the office of attorney general without a law degree; where you don’t have to go to law school to be admitted to the bar and practice law; and where there’s been a tradition of neighbors helping neighbors to fight against policies and procedures they deem unfair, this complaint seems to be more about intimidating and stomping out the opposition rather than real concerns about any legal violation.
In fact, many Vermonters are speaking out on websites and elsewhere and are appalled at this obvious attempt to muzzle opposition to energy projects. Even those who support wind projects don’t support the tactics being deployed against Smith.
These powerful lawyers may have overplayed their hand. It has already caused embarrassment for them, as well as their firms, which in some cases are large, established and well-respected practices.
Additionally, it could be a crushing blow to the future siting of wind and solar projects. Whoever is behind this complaint has probably done more damage to wind development in Vermont than Annette Smith and her organization could have done on their own. It was a political miscalculation of enormous proportions.
In addition, there are a number of potential conflicts of interest in this case, or at least the appearance of conflicts.
First, one of the lawyers who publicly said she would testify against Smith is married to a prominent wind industry advocate. Apparently, she failed to inform her client, Green Mountain Power, before blurting out her position in a newspaper because immediately GMP, the state’s largest utility, distanced themselves from the call for an investigation with a strongly worded statement supporting Annette Smith’s right to be involved in the process.
But the conflicts don’t stop there. An on-line news service pointed to the fact that “according to documents posted Sunday on the blog for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Burlington-based law firm Dinse, Knapp and McAndrew has been gathering files on Annette Smith, the group’s director.” This is the same law firm where Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith is a lawyer.
And although the names on the complaint letter are redacted, The Associated Press reported, “other documents and a footnote in the letter point to a law firm representing David Blittersdorf, a major solar and wind developer.” If Mr. Blittersdorf is truly involved, he certainly could use better political counsel. This political blunder may have damaged his cause, not advanced it.
The complaint against Smith raises many troubling concerns. The true intent, on its face, seems to be to preserve the advantage the energy insiders have created in our regulatory proceedings. The fact that someone is exploiting a secretive process to silence any resistance to wind development highlights their fear that the merits of their position or plan will not be able to withstand broader public scrutiny. This tactic should set off alarm bells with all Vermonters. In the end this shouldn’t even be a close call for the attorney general: Opposition voices and local communities, however small they are, have a right to be heard. And Annette Smith should have the right to help them be heard.
Mike Smith was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Gov. Jim Douglas. He is the host of the radio program, “Open Mike with Mike Smith,” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5 and 101.9 FM. He is also a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio and is a regular contributor to the Times Argus and Rutland Herald.