Last summer I was visiting my son, Byron, and daughter-in-law, Laura, in Asheville, North Carolina. Laura is a nationally award-winning architect with a private practice who also Chairs the Asheville Planning and Zoning Commission. When I asked whether I could accompany her to a public hearing she assured me their meetings were often dull, boring and tedious. I pointed out that I might well be the only member of her extended family who actually enjoys attending public meetings, and she relented, while remaining somewhat doubtful of my sanity. One of the quirks of a federalized democratic system is that public participation has evolved unique patterns in each American community. There is always something to be learned during grassroots testimony.
Asheville handles public comment in a vastly superior manner to what we offer in most Colorado communities, where citizen input is usually limited to two to three minutes pushed at the end of a public meeting as members and officials are packing up to leave. The Asheville Planning and Zoning Commission meeting opened with public comments, and those who had scheduled their remarks were allowed to take more than the three minutes offered to those arriving without prior notice. Nor were these scheduled comments limited merely to items appearing on that day’s agenda. This process seems to serve as both an early warning system for the board and a genuine forum providing residents a chance to register their opinions at a time when members will actually hear them.
Several weeks ago I noted that the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) would be accepting public comments regarding priorities to be incorporated in its proposed revision of planning protocols for regulated energy providers. If this subject matter doesn’t make your heart thrill, let me assure you these decisions could well determine the impact of heating and electric costs on your household budget in the decades immediately ahead. Truth be told, major economic decisions are made all the time before obscure panels controlling water rates, sewage charges, special district assessments, school property taxes and higher education tuition rates. For the most part, voters are ignorant, even oblivious, to these decisions until their bill arrives.
After several meetings around the state the PUC closed with a final hearing at its offices in downtown Denver. Perhaps 50 or 60 citizens signed up to register their advice and responses on a weekday evening. A few hours listening to this testimony instructed me in the conclusion that public opinion has taken a dramatic green turn over the past few years. Not a single witness defended the merits of “beautiful, clean coal” as a plausible option for future generating capacity. For that matter, neither were there any advocates speaking up for natural gas as our “bridge fuel” to a renewable future. The testimony was uniformly in favor of reaching a 100% sustainable, renewable electric grid as soon as possible.
Witnesses bolstered their advocacy with the simple, market-based argument that renewables are now cheaper than fossil-fuel alternatives. This represents a dramatic turnaround in just the past few years. Fossil fuel zealots were long able to object to renewable energy sourcing as a forced subsidy that penalized Colorado’s poorest residents by imposing a policy of “virtue signaling.” That argument is now dead. In last year’s capacity solicitation from XCEL, every proposed renewable facility promised cheaper kilowatt prices than their fossil fuel competitors. Ignoring this reality and insisting on the ostensible reliability of fossil fuel base load capacity is to clutch at a myth that denies both virtue and common sense.
Perhaps the most engaging witnesses were twin sisters, Stasa and Milica Stevanovic. At just 10 years of age they may well be harbingers for a youth protest demanding genuine action to forestall climate warming — the vanguard of a public outcry that could well rival the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, yet one that has yet to cross the horizon of mainstream awareness. While their comments were crisp and poised, they cut their elders no slack. Stasa admonished the commissioners, “This is a climate crisis, but people don’t treat it as one. Those adults are stealing our future away from us, from this generation. I won’t let that happen, whether you like it or not!” She went on to observe, “…climate change doesn’t care if you or I believe. No one does. Either we save the earth or we don’t.” Her sister, Milica, pitched in with, “I hope you stand for science. I hope that you stand against the climate crisis…we, by that I mean all of us, have to act fast, or Earth, our only home, will face a cruel and disastrous future.” She then closed with, “You are all acting with no respect for your children, grandchildren and the future generation.”
Ouch! We all need to attend more meetings and speak up.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.