When the People Lead…

Vermont’s a small state with a so-called “citizen legislature.” Our legislators don’t have staffs and offices, they have desks in the House or Senate chamber. The committee rooms are small, sometimes people testifying have to wait in the hall until it’s their turn to speak; there’s just not enough room inside.

Our legislators all have other jobs – they’re farmers and business people, professors and attorneys. There’s a law on the books that says a person cannot be fired from his or her day job because she or he is attending to legislative duties. Wealthy professionals are over-represented in the Vermont legislature, but show me a legislature where they’re not. All in all, I think we do pretty well.

Still, I sense an unvoiced inferiority complex when it comes to our legislature. We have New York just to the west and Massachusetts to the south and while we all thank good fortune every day that we are not those states, there’s a certain junior varsity air to the whole undertaking.

So what? The point of a legislature is not offices and staffers or worse, to provide a space for lobbyists to hang out all the year through. The point is to make good government and then go home. That’s what the Vermont legislature does in 16 weeks (more or less) each year.

Yesterday, the Vermont Senate, on a vote of 26-4, became to first legislative body in America to close a nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee, which is owned by the Entergy Corporation of New Orleans, Louisiana.

The plant, first opened in 1972, is scheduled to close in 2012. Entergy Louisiana, which bought Vermont Yankee in 2002, wanted the legislature to extend its permission to operate another 20 years.

The Louisiana folks have – to be honest – run the place into the ground. A cooling tower collapse, a transformer fire, a crane dropping high-level radioactive waste, missing fuel rods – it would be funny if it wasn’t tragic.

The latest fiasco has been leaks of tritium and cobalt-60 that Entergy cannot neither find nor plug for the last seven weeks. We do know the leak is from an underground pipe – a pipe Entergy Louisiana officials swore under oath did not exist.

Yesterday Curtis Hebert, new guy in Vermont (the old guy got sent on vacation after the leak) held a (sorta) press conference before the Senate met. He read a statement and refused to take questions. The statement said lawyers hired by Entergy to conduct an “independent internal investigation” found Entergy officials didn’t lie to regulators about the supposedly nonexistent leaky pipe. (Translation: “We’re not dishonest, we’re incompetent. Can we please keep running a nuke in your state?”)

The snow flew all through the day, heavy flakes that accumulated like wet cement. Town meeting, our annual exercise in direct democracy, is next Tuesday and we always seem to get a blizzard within a week of town meeting.

Inside the statehouse, a holiday atmosphere reigned. Some two hundred supporters of closing Vermont Yankee crowded the halls. Entergy Louisiana had trucked in 50 plant workers the day before, but none we present for the actual debate. Off looking for the leaks, I suppose. A public gallery runs the perimeter of the Senate chamber. Citizens sit so close, they can reach out and tap legislators on the shoulder.

Extra police officers were in the halls to help with crowd control, but environmental organizers kept everyone headed where they needed go. I saw one police officer cooing to a year-old baby who had a “Retire Vermont Yankee as Planned” sticker on her snugli. A delegation of Russian citizens on a cultural exchange passed through the crowd with their interpreter. Their eyes were wide in amazement. Doesn’t look like this back home, does it folks?

The final vote – 26 to 4 – is in keeping with conversations I’ve had with fellow Vermonters in the last few years. Most people know the time for nuclear power is past and look forward to a renewable energy future. A few people disagree, are dug in and put out that they constitute such a small minority. It’s OK, they’ll get over it. We’ll welcome them back. It’s Vermont, after all. We’ll be living together for the rest of our lives.

© Mark Floegel, 2010

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