Coverage of the final public meetings concerning a proposed replacement of Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota has missed the opportunity to examine a case of a horribly mismanaged public process.
While the Public Utilities Commission is accustomed to sparse turnout for its meetings, concern over climate change, jobs and Native rights has been bringing waves of people to the commission’s St. Paul office for final oral arguments and commission deliberations this week and next.
The PUC had made efforts since April to find a larger venue for the meetings, but was unsuccessful in doing so. Staff members opened two overflow rooms for the events on Monday and Tuesday and made the unusual move of ticketing them on a first-come, first-served basis, allowing only those at the front of the line into the main room to see (and be seen by) commissioners.
Tickets were distributed at 8 a.m. each day. This immediately encouraged competition, with anti-pipeline and pro-pipeline groups racing to line up around the block at 5:30 a.m. There was a power failure in the building on the second day of meetings, and because the tickets were then not distributed until 9:30 a.m., some people stood outside in the cold and rain for four hours. Present in the line were numerous elders and a few small children. The PUC, with all its fluorescent offices, did not seem able to at least offer some folding chairs.
The real scandal, however, is that for all our waiting, the ticketing system proved easily corruptible by malevolent actors. Once the doors finally opened on Tuesday, a couple of dozen teenagers (or very young adults) wearing “Minnesotans for Line 3” T-shirts got their tickets and promptly exited the building as a group, never to return to the meeting. They effectively ate their tickets so that no authentic members of the public could take those spots.
A PUC staff member was alerted to this and dashed after them in high heels. She found the members of the group handing their tickets over to a boss figure. Some who had spoken with the kids in line — trying to strike up a conversation about Line 3 — learned that they didn’t know what Line 3 is, or were “not allowed” to talk or were there because it had “paid really well.”
Despite the PUC’s knowing that this had happened, and despite numerous complaints about 26 empty seats in the main room that could have been filled by the overflow audience, staff members were rigid about the ticketing policy.
Additionally, water bottles were not allowed in the meetings, which were to run between six and eight hours each day. One woman with a medical condition that necessitates that she have easy access to water was denied her request to have water with her. This even though commissioners, lawyers and intervening party members are allowed to have any drink with them.
With more meetings scheduled for this coming Tuesday and Wednesday (9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; the ticket line opens at 8), basic things could be done to improve this system, beginning with noncompetitive ticketing. If there are separate lines for the pro- and anti-pipeline sides, an equal mix of viewpoints could be represented in the main room, waiting in line for hours would be unnecessary and cheating would be disincentivized. If a number of seats remain unfilled for more than an hour, they could be taken by people waiting to get in.
Ultimately, the PUC should have found a bigger venue, considering that it witnessed packed hearing rooms around the Line 3 issue statewide for more than a year and therefore should have anticipated months in advance that this would be big.
Because these meetings are held during the workday, and those of us not paid off for our attendance are actually losing money by being there, it felt to many that this process was nearly designed to dissuade public participation.
Sara Suppan, of Minneapolis, is an artist. She has been a volunteer on the Line 3 issue for two years.