MONTPELIER- Even 2-foot snow drifts can't impede direct democracy - at least, that's how the dozen brave souls who showed up for "Citizen Action Day" at the Montpelier Statehouse last Thursday, February 15, might have put it. One delegate cross-country skied his way to representation.
The turnout demonstrated "Vermonters' ability to respond to challenge proactively," said Johanna Miller, outreach director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, which co-sponsored the event.
Scheduled nearly three weeks before the statewide Town Meeting Day on March 6, the longstanding event is designed to foster communication between Vermont's environmental community and its elected officials. Rural Vermont, Vermont Public Interest Research Group and others also provided funding.
For participants at this year's gathering - many of whom had never done political advocacy work before - the state's central bureaucratic machine proved to be anything but coldly mechanical. "If you have something to say," noted Caroline Sedano, a senior at Montpelier High School, the politicians "are willing to listen."
Along with fellow citizen-delegates, Sedano sat down with her legislators for a relatively unscripted lunchtime discussion. She wants them to consider Bill H.27, which would establish a redeemable tire deposit geared toward preventing illegal dumping.
"I wish every day was Citizen Action Day," said Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin (D-Windham). "Bureaucracies tend to be built for bureaucrats and lawyers." So it's understandable, he suggested, when citizens feel intimidated by the "massiveness of power." A major proponent of climate-change legislation, Shumlin spoke with the assembled citizens about H.127, which would require 40 percent of Vermont's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2018.
"A lot of important leaders from the House and Senate came to speak with us," noted Carl Eitner, an organizer who works on peak-oil issues in Montpelier. "I was impressed with that."
But the realities of citizenship aren't always so pleasant, cautioned Anthony Iarrapino, an attorney from the Montpelier-based Conservation Law Foundation. Speaking with the assembled citizens, he shared concerns about inefficiency in the state's Agency of Natural Resources (ANR). According to Citizen Action Day briefing materials, a "staggeringly low" 4 percent of ANR's citizen complaints from 1995 to 2005 resulted in "enforcement actions involving fines."
"You can have incredibly strong Vermont laws," Iarrapino said in reference to H.259, a comprehensive reform bill designed to bring accountability and transparency to the ANR. "But they're not worth the paper they're printed on unless they're enforced."
Representative David Deen (D-Windham) is working to combat corporate pressures on government. His bill, H.309, would prohibit big-box developers such as Wal-Mart from receiving stormwater credits for converting farms into parking lots.
VNRC water program director John Groveman claimed that's exactly what Wal-Mart is attempting to do in an ongoing St. Albans case. "The big loopholes in the stormwater laws are very frustrating," he complained. "You have to fight very hard for incremental progress."
"'Profit above environment' is represented in these halls all the time," Deen admitted.
Shumlin said that "citizens can help us get these bills through" in spite of oil-company lobbyists and other "usual suspects."
Still, asserted Andrea Stander, a citizen-delegate from Montpelier, Vermont's Capitol Building will always be a people's house. At the lunchtime session, Stander and Burlington Rep. Rachel Weston (D-Chittenden) discussed bill H.58, which would prohibit school buses from idling on school grounds.
"I've seen [inexperienced] people become effective advocates after coming to one of these days," Stander said. "I've had lobbying conversations in the bathroom!"
Jessica Edgerly, a community organizer with the Montpelier-based Toxics Action Network, agreed that grassroots advocacy work in Vermont isn't just a publicity stunt. She suggested that informal conversations like the ones that spiral out of Citizen Action Day "hold so much more weight with the legislature, even more than traditional environmental advocacy."
In her nonprofit work, Edgerly reflected, "We see democracy at work all the time. Citizen Action Day is one more chance for residents to find a voice - and then learn how to use it."
Representative Deen had one caveat, though. "Make your voices heard," he said in the hallway on his way to a committee vote. "Because the other side is already making its voice heard every day."