Original post can be found at the ReEnergize Texas Blog
On Tuesday, students from Southwestern University’s Students for Environmental Activism and Knowledge (SEAK) had intended to speak before the Georgetown City Council regarding the 20 year energy plan for their city. They had registered an agenda item with the City Secretary’s Office, asked all the right questions about who could speak and for howlong, and everyone was in City Council chambers ahead of the meeting forms in hand and polite, thoughtful, well-reasoned remarks committed to memory.
SEAK’s charismatic President, Connor Hanrahan, went to the mic and spoke politely about hoping to form a positive “working relationship” with the city as they discussed aspects of the energy plan and in particular a provision to purchase 30% of their electricity from nuclear power plants.
“We are not here to protest nuclear,” he said, “but want to discuss new information that affects this plan.”
And then the Mayor dropped a bomb. Citing a “misunderstanding” about City Council procedures, he informed Connor and the group of students and allies he’d brought with him that they would not be allowed to speak at the meeting that evening. To his credit, Mayor Garver did make an effort at conciliation by offering Connor the opportunity to nominate 2 members of his party to speak for 3 minutes apiece, but the notion was quickly rebuked by Councilwoman Pat Berryman, a known proponent of nuclear power.
Does this sound familiar to anyone? Think Pedernales Electric Coop and CPS Energy. These two major electric utilities in Texas have been recently embroiled in controversy over failure to provide information, give the public access to speak, and making bad, even corrupt decisions from positions of power. As a result, reform candidates have been elected to the PEC Board of Directors and two of its former members face multiple felony indictments. At CPS, two executives have been placed on leave while its board investigates why the utility failed to disclose new cost estimates to the public and the San Antonio City Council.
Why would Georgetown’s Mayor and City Council tell local students they had no right to speak about the energy future of their own city? Because the rules said so? Can a member of the City Council not make a motion to suspend the rules? In fact they can, but no member of the City Council had the courage or good sense to make that motion and give their constituents the opportunity to weigh in on an issue of city governance.
Georgetown’s website recently posted an article patting the city on the back for moving forward with a citizen participation plan aimed at increasing civic engagement. This little episode made clear that such a plan is badly needed.
Georgetown is not a big city. As of last year the population was a little under 50,000. David Foster, an activist from Clean Water Action who had been invited by SEAK to speak at the meeting, talked fondly beforehand about the small-town feeling that had drawn him and his wife to the city for a short retreat just a week earlier.
But in this same small town, if an ordinary citizen and a couple of his or her friends want to bring an issue up to their elected city council, the answer appears to be “I’m sorry, but we don’t care to hear about it. You’ll just have to wait until one of us decides that your issue is worthy of our consideration.”
Newsflash Georgetown City Council – your rules need changing. A person shouldn’t have to work themselves raw if they want to let a few people speak to you about an issue or bring in an expert or two who’ve done some research on the subject. Even the Texas Legislature, where lawmakers have only 140 days every 2 years to make important decisions affecting the entire state, allows people to simply show up, sign up, and speak directly to Representatives and Senators.
The truth of the matter is that the City Council and Georgetown Utility Services made a boneheaded decision when they 1) made nuclear power 30% of their future energy mix and 2) sent a representative to San Antonio to speak on behalf of CPS Energy in defending the nuclear project. He was 1 of 17 people who spoke for the plant, while 63 spoke against it. And now that nuclear project is embroiled in controversy as rising cost estimates have made it too expensive for San Antonio and it is becoming clear that utility officials attempted to hide that information from City Council as they prepared to vote on a $400 million bond package for the plant.
The Georgetown City Council should know that this kind of stonewalling can only hurt them. PEC stonewalled its customers and got one of the biggest utility scandals in Texas history. CPS did a little better regarding the public but nevertheless erred on the side of closed-door-meetings and non-disclosure and has put itself on very thin ice with the City Council and the public.
Being open and transparent is not as much of a hassle as you might think, and especially not in a small town. Had the City Council bothered to listen to its own residents, they might have learned that programs aimed at efficiency could save residents money. They might have learned that nuclear power is generally the most expensive form of energy commercially available. They might have learned that reliable alternatives such as solar power with natural gas back-ups cost far less than energy from new nuclear reactors. Those crazy environmentalists with their fiscally responsible approach to energy policy!
The members of SEAK, Mr. Foster, and representatives from Public Citizen and ReEnergize Texas will be back in two weeks. We will jump through the new hoops City Council has erected, or we’ll just ask Councilwoman Patty Eason to represent the students of Southwestern, who live in her district, by making the energy plan a Council Action Item or whatever terminology they need it to be in order to sit through the unwanted babbling of their own citizens. But beware, City Council. That babbling has had a strange way of coming true lately, particularly when it comes to nuclear power, and if the CPS experience is any indication that’s one train you don’t want to get hit by.