BURLINGTON – Jane Palmer of Monkton was not taking notes at a technical hearing on a natural gas pipeline project proposed to pass through her property last year.
At the end of the Public Service Board hearing, she asked regulators for a transcribed copy of the proceeding and was told she had to purchase the public records from the private court reporter for 10 cents per page.
The Palmers, who oppose the project and had party status in the case, say they never purchase the transcripts because they cannot afford them.
“It’s definitely a disadvantage,” she said about the cost of the transcripts. “Had we known how stacked the deck was against us, we may not have [intervened in the case].”
The Palmers are like many other landowners, businesses, utilities and other special interests participating in the siting of energy projects in Vermont. The quasi-judicial Public Service Board regulates electric, gas and telecommunication utilities and private water companies, and reviews the economic and environmental impacts projects these companies plan to build in the state.
The public must pay for written transcripts of these court-like proceedings. The cost of these records prompted the State Auditor’s Office to investigate the PSB’s method of recording proceedings and making those records available to the public.
Last month, the State Auditor Doug Hoffer released a report that found the PSB does not control how much is charged to the public for transcripts of regulatory proceedings.
Instead, a private court reporter has ownership rights to these documents and sells them to the public at whatever price it deems necessary.
The auditor’s office found the current process posed hurdles to accessing public information.
“PSB cases attract a wide range of parties from a broad spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds,” Hoffer said in a statement. “The very nature of these cases demands greater accessibility to this public information.”
The PSB has a contract with Burlington-based Capitol Court Reporters Inc., which sets prices the PSB pays for the documents, which varies based on the time and duration of the public hearing as well as the time for preparing the documents.
The public can view the court transcripts at the PSB’s offices free, but the PSB cannot distribute the documents to the public without first passing some legal hurdles.
Two decades ago, the board adopted a longstanding practice for charging the public for documents “owned” by the court reporters, which was at the time a conventional practice in the court system, according to General Counsel Michael Dworkin’s July 1994 legal opinion on the issue.
June Tierney, the PSB’s legal counsel, said the business before the board has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. Previously, utilities, state agencies and large corporations did not question the board’s public records practices; now, she said, more individuals are involved in board’s proceedings.
That’s why she said the board Chairman James Volz has made it a priority to make these documents available to the public since he was appointed in 2005. She said the board planned to switch to an electronic filing system, ePSB, by early 2015, which would makes the documents available online. That date has been pushed back to early 2016, she said.
However, she said the board will consider ways to make the documents available sooner. But first, the board must request legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office as to whether the board can change the cost structure of the transcripts. The PSB contract with Capitol Court Reporters expire on June 30.
The board pays the court reporter an appearance fee that ranges from $150 to $275 for a public hearing. The per-page copy fee for the transcripts ranges from $2.75 to $7 based on whether the proceeding was held during the day or night and turnover time. According to the auditor’s report, the PSB paid Capitol Court Reporters about $204,000 between fiscal years 2011 and 2013.
The PSB bills these cost back to the applicants. According to the report, Green Mountain Power paid $10,958 in transcription fees during the case that led to the approval of the utility’s Kingdom Community Wind farm. Vermont Gas paid $7,067 during the proceeding that approved the natural gas utility’s 41-mile pipeline extension through Addison County in December.
These amounts only include the transcription fees state regulators billed back to the utilities and not what the utility paid for their own documents, the report states.
The report found attorneys representing towns in PSB proceedings paid from 25 cents to 50 cents per page. By comparison, the secretary of state charges 5 cents per page for public records requests made to state agencies.
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