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Legislator leaves the public eye for the Public Service Board 

Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which has opposed recent wind power projects, said she sees Cheney as someone more likely to go along with the majority. “I don’t see Margaret Cheney as being someone who is going to dissent from the chair,” she said, referring to board Chairman James Volz.

Credit:  Written by TERRI HALLENBECK, Free Press Staff Writer | Burlington Free Press | September 30, 2013 | www.burlingtonfreepress.com ~~

When Margaret Cheney joined the Legislature in 2007, she was a quiet understudy.

Within a year or so, she started to assert herself, championing legislation to boost renewable energy sources and energy-efficiency programs, gaining a reputation as a smart, measured lawmaker who supports many of the Democratic majority’s priorities. She became vice chairwoman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee and the go-to person for legislators with questions regarding energy bills.

Cheney’s time in the Legislature offers Vermonters a glimpse at what to expect from her as she takes a seat today on the three-member Public Service Board that decides what utility projects will fly in Vermont under what conditions.

“She’s really smart,” said Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. “She’s not afraid of research.”

Cheney will leave the Legislature to serve on a board that remains a mystery to many Vermonters, even some of those who regularly interact with this entity that operates largely like a court. Like judges, the Public Service Board members sit, arms folded in front of lawyers to hear cases, then disappear behind closed doors to issues rulings laced in legalese.

“I have no insight into their deliberations and how they make decisions,” said Sandra Levine, senior attorney for Conservation Law Foundation, who has been involved in numerous cases before the board, including in opposition to Vermont Yankee. “They operate in relative isolation.”

That isolation gave Cheney pause, she said, in applying for the open board position. “I don’t want to be isolated. I really love the discussion,” she said.

The board’s isolation from the public also has been a topic of debate in recent years. Some argue the Public Service Board process is antiquated and cut off from Vermonters. Others defend that distance as necessary so that the board can make decisions based on fact rather than sentiment.

Whether Cheney – coming from the public legislative process – will help make the board more user-friendly remains to be seen. In a response that is typical of her approach, she said, “I don’t know yet. I’ve heard both sides.”

As a former journalist who was managing editor of The Washingtonian magazine, Cheney said, gathering information before drawing conclusions is her mentality. “You don’t start off with a conclusion. You reach your conclusion based on what you learn.”

Those with an interest in cases before the Public Service Board have differing views on Cheney’s new role.

Levine, whose Conservation Law Foundation typically supports renewable energy projects, sees Cheney’s appointment as a good thing. But she said, “I don’t feel like I could count on her vote. Nor should I. My experience is that she’s an independent thinker.”

Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which has opposed recent wind power projects, said she sees Cheney as someone more likely to go along with the majority. “I don’t see Margaret Cheney as being someone who is going to dissent from the chair,” she said, referring to board Chairman James Volz.

Why the Public Service Board?

Cheney is filling a rare opening on the board, replacing David Coen, who has served since 1995. The last new member appointed was Volz in 2005. Member John Burke was appointed in 2000.

Sarah London, legal counsel for Gov. Peter Shumlin, wouldn’t say how many applicants there were for the six-year term but said more than 100 people inquired about applying. The position is considered two-thirds of a full-time job and carries a salary of $86,000.

Although many who serve on the board are lawyers, Cheney is not, nor is Coen. The daughter of a diplomat who was raised all over the world, Cheney graduated from Harvard, worked as a journalist and teacher and served on local school boards before being elected to the Legislature from Norwich in 2006. She has three children. In 2009, Cheney married U.S. Rep. Peter Welch.

Cheney said she sought the position because as a legislator she had become interested in how the state would meet its energy goals. This will allow her to focus on that from another angle, she said.

Cheney won’t be involved in the Public Service Board cases that are pending, such as deciding the continued operation of Vermont Yankee or the extension of Vermont Gas Systems’ pipeline. Coen will continue to participate in those decisions.

Cheney will participate as new cases come before the board.

Predicting rulings

How is she likely to rule?

Levine and Smith noted it can be difficult to predict how a person will act in a new role.

As a legislator, Cheney indicated strong support for government-supported energy-efficiency programs and for the government’s offering incentives for small renewable-energy projects.

Does that mean she’d be looking for a way to approve all new proposed renewable-energy projects? “No,” Cheney said. “It really depends what’s proposed.”

She said she would want to weigh issues such as whether the grid is saturated, whether the source is efficient and how it contributes to the diversity of energy sources.

This year, she sponsored a bill that would have expanded energy-efficiency programs for homeowners, paid for with an $8 million heating-fuel tax. The majority of the Legislature balked over the fuel tax, so she failed to get the expansion she sought. She did previously succeed in passing legislation that allows Vermonters to pay for efficiency work through their property taxes.

Cheney also backed legislation this year that failed that would have forced Entergy Corp. to put $40 million into a trust fund to ensure the company would restore the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant site to greenfield status.

Cheney said she has not always gone along with the majority. When lawmakers passed a bill to allow Vermonters to opt out, without cost, of having smart meters installed on their homes to track electric usage, Cheney voted against it. The cost of opting out would be passed to other customers, she said, which she found unfair.

Too cozy?

When Cheney was applying for a seat on the board early this year, she attended a board hearing to see that the panel looked like in action.

“I was interested to see how much they discussed cases. I saw the board members each ask questions,” she said. “What I didn’t see was, of course, the deliberations.”

The hearing that day involved noise levels at the Lowell Mountain wind project owned by Green Mountain Power Corp.

Annette Smith, who has been fighting the Lowell project, said she watched as Cheney heartily greeted Green Mountain Power attorney Don Rendall, whose company often appears before the board.

“She got a big smile on her face, and he came over and greeted her,” Smith said

Now knowing that Cheney was there as a potential Public Service Board member, Smith said, “I would have expected her to go out of her way not to show any friendliness. There is an appearance of coziness with Green Mountain Power. That is not what I would like to see.”

Cheney said Smith misinterpreted. She encountered Rendall when she went for the only empty seat she saw and greeted him the same way she would anyone. “It’s a small state. It’s a matter of cordiality,” Cheney said.

Source:  Written by TERRI HALLENBECK, Free Press Staff Writer | Burlington Free Press | September 30, 2013 | www.burlingtonfreepress.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this article resides with the author or publisher indicated. As part of its noncommercial educational effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Send requests to excerpt, general inquiries, and comments via e-mail.

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