Agencies should not allow creation of a hostile environment at public meetings

On February 19, 2015, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) transported a substantial contingent of regulators to Brattleboro, VT to hold a public meeting about Entergy’s Post Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR) for the permanently shutdown Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Brattleboro Community TV produced a video record of the event.

Watching that video is a disturbing, stressful way to spend nearly 4 hours. It should have ended at 9:00, but the last speaker didn’t get the microphone until nearly 10 when the room had to be vacated. Quite a few of the people who signed up to talk had gone home by the time the moderator called their name.

The meeting was frequently disrupted, with some hostile and intimidating actions by a large tribe of people sharing a specific point of view. That tribe had a designated warrior named Gary Sachs who was often cheered and congratulated for his disruptions. The meeting moderator not only tolerated the disruptions, he enabled them in the same way as a parent who only pays attention to the child who is acting out while virtually ignoring the one who is behaving.

Because I know that most people don’t have the time or the stomach to watch a four hour marathon, I produced a clipped version that focuses on Mr. Sachs’s actions and the actions that respond to his presence. Even with that filtering criteria, the clip is still 26 minutes long.

It distresses me to see how many people have forgotten certain key components of our revered 1st Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
(Emphasis added.)

I support that entire statement and recognize that it puts a burden or responsibility on all of us when we remember that its delineated rights apply to all Americans. Each of us has the right of free speech, but our right to say what we want or need to say fades out when it intrudes on the rights of other people to say what they want or need to say. At a public assembly, we would not want our government officials shutting us out of the conversation, but we must recognize that those officials have a responsibility to protect the rights of everyone else to participate.

We do not live in a country were the person with the loudest voice, the largest bank account, or the most intimidating demeanor gets to dominate a public conversation and shut everyone else out. We cannot have a peaceable assembly when bullies insist they they own the turf and we cannot petition the Government for a redress of our grievances if an individual backed by a mob shouts us down in a public forum specifically designated as a venue for speaking to Government representatives.

The responsibility to protect everyone’s rights falls on the shoulders of the designated government officials and law enforcement officers assigned to hold a public meeting. They have the equivalent of a judge’s gavel and should use it to maintain order. In situations where stakes are high, emotions are charged up, and tempers may flare, keeping order requires early and effective action.

Meeting ground rules should include procedures for peacefully escorting people out of the meeting when they have proven that they don’t respect the rights of others and escalation responses that might include a recess or complete adjournment.

When people learn that their government officials have abdicated their responsibility and developed a habit of holding raucous meetings where disorder and hostility prevail, some of them will avoid participation. Many good and thoughtful people walk away from conflicts, but that means that their voices aren’t heard and their thoughts are not shared.

I have been following the long-running public discussions about the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station for at least five years. There is a history of meetings hosted by the NRC where uncontrolled outbursts and hostile actions were tolerated. There is also a record of special, almost encouraging meetings with groups that have a habit of disrespecting others. Those meetings have often excluded responsible individuals and groups with a different point of view.

I’ve written about this issue in the past, but haven’t always had such good visual evidence of the interruptions and the way NRC meeting leaders have tolerated those interruptions, almost to the point of subtle encouragement.

After watching the four hour video of a meeting that should have only lasted three hours, I contacted the NRC Public Affairs office to ask why they had let the meeting be dominated by disrupters. Here is the first response in what turned out to be a rather lengthy exchange.

Rod,

Gary Sachs is a longtime opponent of the now permanently shutdown Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. When the Seven Days publication ran a story on the closure of the plant last December, Mr. Sachs and his wife were among those featured: http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/gone-fission-assessing-a-future-without-vermont-yankee/Content?oid=2484782 .

We knew going into the meeting that Mr. Sachs might be interested in seeking to disrupt it. This was based on his behavior at past NRC meetings regarding the plant. Our decision was to not exacerbate the situation by having him removed from the meeting. Instead, our facilitator, Chip Cameron, repeatedly reminded Mr. Sachs that his interruptions were unacceptable; were doing a disservice to audience members there to learn more about the decommissioning process for the plant; and that eventually he would have an opportunity to speak at the microphone, which he did. The lack of Mr. Sachs’ removal should not be considered in any way an indication that the NRC condones such behavior. We would also note that Vermont has a high threshold for the removal of citizens from public meetings.

The NRC always tries to strike the right balance between allowing members of the public to express their views – and all of the passion accompanying that for some – and creating an environment in which other audience members can gain information without distractions. As we always do, we will seek to learn from the Vermont Yankee meeting and further refine our meeting protocols going forward. In the meantime, we will continue to encourage attendees at our meetings to be respectful and to strive for civil discourse that serves everyone’s best interests.

Eliot
(Note: From an older email with a more complete signature.)
Eliot Brenner
Director, Office of Public Affairs
US Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Mr. Brenner and I then exchanged some short, philosophical emails about ways to run a meeting, with me pointing out that appeasement doesn’t work. Here is another important response from him.

Rod: We have been in the process of fleshing out a plan to improve NRC public meetings, including guidance for the conduct of meetings. As that work unfolds the experience at VY will be taken into account.

While we want to be inclusive, we do not want that to impact those who are at our meetings to listen and learn, regardless of their perspective.

With respect to the VY meeting. There have been other VY meetings that were more challenging and we did not seek the removal of individuals. That includes a case in which manure or compost was thrown at and on members of the NRC and the licensee. There is every chance that seeking to remove Mr. Sachs would have been the story, not the information being presented. And the act of ejecting someone could have led to further disruption, given the composition of the audience. Additionally, there is a very high legal threshold in Vermont for ejecting someone from a public meeting and, as I understand it, it could bring the hearing to a halt. Beyond that, we had a good facilitator who has dealt with this individual before and who was working politely to rein in the person.

That said, we are working on this issue with the aim of developing a more structured way to permit the public to better be able to participate, comment, ask questions and learn, and to better deal with, and if necessary remove, those who would disrupt meetings.

As I think I said earlier, we regret that the behavior of one individual detracted from the experience of others at this meeting.

Eliot

After letting Brenner know that I would be writing about this topic in hopes of encouraging continued efforts to ensure that all people have their rights respected, I responded with the following email.

Eliot:

There is every chance that seeking to remove Mr. Sachs would have been the story, not the information being presented.

Why are you so concerned about what “the story” about the meeting would have been?

The purpose of a public meeting is to provide information and an opportunity for comment to the responsible citizens who take the time to attend the meeting and who behave themselves.

Additionally, there is a very high legal threshold in Vermont for ejecting someone from a public meeting and, as I understand it, it could bring the hearing to a halt.

Vermont may have a high threshold for ejection, but the conduct that is clearly visible on the recorded video is illegal. One is not allowed to call someone a “scumbag” (twice) or to snatch the microphone from the hand of someone else, or to physically threaten someone by intruding on their space.

Walking out of or stopping a disruptive meeting is an appropriate response that has been used at certain regulatory agencies, including one to the north of us.

http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/activists-are-lashing-out-at-the-canadian-nuclear-safety-commission

With respect to the VY meeting. There have been other VY meetings that were more challenging and we did not seek the removal of individuals. That includes a case in which manure or compost was thrown at and on members of the NRC and the licensee.

The NRC’s tolerant responses to incredibly nasty behavior like the “manure or compost” incident in previous meetings did not help to establish good order and peaceful assemblies. It encouraged worse behavior, in the same way as purchasing a candy bar for a child who is acting out in the grocery store encourages future misbehavior.

Beyond that, we had a good facilitator who has dealt with this individual before and who was working politely to rein in the person.

I disagree with your judgement about the skills of your chosen facilitator. Being nice to problem children is unfair to the adults who are there to engage in an important civic duty.

At least in this tiny corner of the internet — which reaches many people who care deeply about using atomic energy to improve public health, safety and prosperity — the “story” about the meeting is the way that the NRC failed in its responsibility to provide a peaceful assembly so that all people — including those whose lives will be harmed by the successful actions that helped to force the plant closure decision — could petition the Government for redress of their grievances.

The current commission is not the same one that enabled the protesters in Vermont to establish a pattern of behavior that discouraged nuclear energy supporters from participating fully in the public dialog. Fortunately, the NRC has a well-deserved reputation of being a learning organization that recognizes that self-criticism and focused efforts to improve based on extracting lessons from operating experience will result in improved performance.

NRC leaders also know the value of learning from the best practices of others, so I hope they find some good examples of agencies that run effective meetings that allow peaceful participation by people of varying points of view. They probably have some internal examples of more successful approaches to habitual disrupters.


Preview of things to come: Yesterday I watched the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee hearing on the NRC’s FY2016 budget request. It was a refreshing example of our government at work. My Twitter feed has a number of comments about the hearing.

For those who don’t have time or interest in watching the full hearing, I plan to post clips that include key highlights by Monday morning.

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