||Report on the
Natural Resource Trustee Council
Help Clean The
River and Bay!
Public Input Stifled
On June 3, 2003, the Natural Resource Trustee Council met publicly for the first time, hosted by the Oneida Nation at their Radisson Hotel complex in Green Bay. They also held an evening “Open House.”
The Council's purpose is to evaluate and choose restoration and PCB compensation projects for the Fox River and Bay system, as a conclusion of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process. This council includes government representatives of the States of Wisconsin and Michigan, U.S. government, and the Oneida and Menominee Nations.
The Council distributes funds gained through settlements with the 7 companies who dumped PCBs in the system. According to the Damage Assessment, these polluters owe the public $333 million in compensation (separate from sediment cleanup costs.)
At this meeting, the council adopted their mission statement, project selection criteria, and public participation process, and approved a block of 17 restoration projects already underway. Nearly $9 million is budgeted for the projects over the next 6 months.
Currently, the Council has roughly $20 million available from the interim partial NRDA settlement with Appleton Paper and NCR Corporation 2.5 years ago. Other NRDA settlements with other companies may be announced at any time, but our legal challenge of the first final settlement with Georgia-Pacific Corporation may have slowed this somewhat.
At the meeting, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that the final Restoration Plan has just been completed and signed by all the governments. It includes the “Responsiveness Document” (Chapter 7) where the agencies respond to citizen comments made during the 30 day written comment period last year. (Of course, they refused to hold a public hearing.) It will soon be posted online at http://midwest.fws.gov/NEPA . In addition, the Service is creating a new website for the Trustee Council which should be complete by July, 2003, where the public can view the Restoration Plan, acceptability criteria for projects, and details of the application process. Approved projects will also be listed on the website.
Serious Public Process Problems
Prior to the meeting, the Trustees claimed that "Public attendance is encouraged at both sessions. The Trustees hope that by participating in their meetings, people will have a better understanding of the process, which would encourage better restoration project proposals and produce a restored environment that addresses the public's needs." [Note: full "restoration" isn't possible, the best they can do is partially compensate for the damage.]
Unfortunately, the Trustees mishandled the event, making public involvement difficult and meaningless. For example:
1. Public Forum was Too Late --- The Trustee Council scheduled a “Public Forum” for citizen comment opportunities at 3:30 p.m., after the Council had conducted all its business and voted from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Because the decisions were already made, public comments were pointless and a waste of time.
2. Public Misinformed of Actual Meeting Time --- We were told the Trustee Council would meet from 1:30-3:30 p.m., but they actually met for the entire morning and through the lunch hour. A lot of business was conducted privately before the so-called “public” meeting occurred. We had been promised several times previously by Trustee representatives that "the Trustee Council meetings would be completely public," but the Council's excuse now is that the morning and lunch meetings were an "executive session" discussing land purchases, which can't be open to the public. We weren't allowed to attend, so we have no idea whether this was truly the case. Our trust in the "Trustees" has grown very thin.
3. News Media Weren’t Properly Informed. According to one local news reporter, they received a news release about the Tuesday meeting from the Oneida Tribe late Friday, but she didn't see it until the weekend. A second reporter didn't remember seeing any news release. A few days prior, Clean Water Action Council had contacted the Green Bay Press Gazette and Green Bay News Chronicle to give them meeting details, but the resulting articles were printed too late to allow citizens to plan much in advance or inform others. The larger paper’s article appeared the actual day of the event. If readers waited to read the article after work, it would have been too late. One TV station carried it on their Tuesday supper-time news giving citizens just one hour to make it to the Open House from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. This is not proper publicity.
4. Vague on Details. A skimpy article appeared one month prior in the government’s newsletter, “Fox River Current,” vaguely describing the meeting but giving no details. Less than three weeks before the event, when we called the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for the exact date, time and place, they referred us to the Oneida Tribe, who couldn’t give us details. This meant that our Clean Water Action Council newsletter notice was incomplete. We learned the details a week before the Trustee Council meeting only because we attended a local Remedial Action Plan Science and Technical Advisory Committee meeting where someone asked for details.
5. Meeting Room Not Marked --- The Radisson Hotel is a big place, yet there were no directories or signs telling the public where the Trustee Council was meeting. The sign outside the closed doors of the meeting room said it was an “Oneida Environmental Meeting.” The public should not have to guess that they're in the right place before they open the door.
6. People Couldn’t Hear or See --- The meeting was held in a large, long room, with fans in the ceiling making enough noise that it was difficult to hear. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that several of the Trustee Council bureaucrats mumbled and behaved as if they were having private conversations. The projection screen was a long way from the public seating section, making it difficult to read the fine print of the visual presentation. We were sitting in the front row and still couldn't read it.
7. Scripted Meeting --- It was obvious that the public portion of the meeting was carefully scripted and sanitized for public consumption. They moved steadily through their agenda items, with little discussion or debate. Several Trustee Council members presented pieces of the program, often reading their item, with every agency playing a part.
8. Real Business Conducted Elsewhere --- The Council has actually been meeting informally (without public input) for at least 2 years already. The nitty-gritty work of finalizing the Restoration Plan and evaluating project proposals is conducted by a technical work group that reports to the Trustee Council. Clean Water Action Council asked whether these work group meetings would be open to the public, but the Trustees carefully avoided answering the question. One Trustee mentioned that sensitive land negotiations couldn’t be opened for public discussion without endangering projects; however, other government committees have handled this type of business by structuring their agendas to lump all the non-sensitive discussions together for an open meeting, and going into closed session only when necessary.
9. “Forgot” Public Forum --- The Trustee Council scheduled the “Public Forum” from 3:30 to 4:30, with a one hour limit, then proceeded to restrict it to a question and answer period for half an hour. When the questions ended, the Chair tried to adjourn the meeting. This put the Clean Water Action Council representative in the uncomfortable position of objecting and reminding them that citizens were supposed to have an opportunity to comment. It was very awkward. It seemed obvious that comments weren’t welcome.
10. Public Forum Left Out Public --- The “Public Forum” was held in the afternoon at 3:30 p.m., making it impossible for normal working people to attend. The Trustee Council scheduled a ridiculous “Open House” in the evening when they could have provided another true “Public Forum” opportunity, but they didn’t. Citizens routinely ask us, “What is an Open House? What does that mean? What’s the point of my attending?” We’ve protested to the Wisconsin DNR about such sessions in the past, because as stand-alone events they just don’t work to get the public involved in a meaningful way. As usual, we’ve been ignored.
11. Taxpayer Money Squandered. Because publicity was so poor, only 2 new people attended the “Open House” who hadn't attended the afternoon meeting. This means 15-20 agency staff people, taxpayer funded, were standing around with nothing to do. It’s likely that some of the long-distance government officials had to schedule hotel stays, dinner and breakfast because of the useless evening session. They also wasted our time, because we had to leave for 2 hours then come back for the evening meeting.
12. Deliberate Stonewalling --- For two years, the Clean Water Action Council has asked several representatives of the Trustee Council (from the DNR, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Oneida Tribe) for information on how the $40 million from Appleton Paper and NCR Corporation is being spent. We’ve pestered them repeatedly for details on project proposals, and asked what public input process would be used. (Generally, the agency staff people roll their eyes when we ask … often they become openly hostile.) We’ve been assured numerous times that “of course public input opportunities will be provided.” Now, the Trustee Council has given final approval to 17 major projects costing nearly $9 million, with no public input. We’re getting awfully tired of government surprises. Our governments make us pay dearly for a war to establish democracies in countries that don’t want it, while we can’t seem to achieve a democracy here at home, despite our outspoken efforts.
13. Selective, Biased Consultation --- When asked, the Wisconsin DNR representatives said they would occasionally consult with “outside experts” regarding proposed projects, but the DNR will control when and where that consultation occurs. Comments will be invited only from people the DNR wants to hear from. It’s interesting that they have not been willing to share the project proposals with the Science and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) for the Fox River and Green Bay Remedial Action Plan. This group has been meeting 17 years on cleanup and restoration issues, but the Trustee Council has shut them out as well. While we sometimes disagree with the STAC, it’s amazing that even the STAC has been ignored by the Trustee Council.
14. Inaccurate Portrayal of Public Comments --- Trustee Council members asked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service representative, Collette Charbonneau, to summarize the public comments made concerning the proposed Restoration Plan. She proceeded to claim that the public comments mostly supported the agencies’ proposals. End of report. Her claim was highly inaccurate and a slap in the face to everyone who raised serious concerns about several elements of the plan. Is it any wonder that we feel public input is ignored?
15. Vacation Time --- The Trustee Council waited to hold their public meeting during a time when the public was least-likely to attend, during the brief summer vacation months, after all the college campuses have gone on break. This follows a pattern laid down over many years of the Fox River cleanup issue, with important meetings often scheduled in the most inconvenient seasons. (summer break, or Christmas holiday)
16. By-passing the Public --- The Trustee Council approved their final “Public Outreach” policy at this meeting. They voted to not conduct their own public input process regarding project selection (…ignoring our formal written comments emphasizing how important it was to have meaningful public input.) Instead, they voted to make applicants for project funding show proof that public input opportunities were provided regarding their project at some time in the past. This method is badly flawed, for several reasons:
This meeting was infuriating on many levels, and clearly violated the intent of the federal laws governing Natural Resource Damage Assessments, which state that Trustees are supposed to be “accountable to the public for the funds.”
The meeting also violated the Trustee Council’s own proposed Restoration Plan which states on page 36 that “projects will be selected…through a cooperative process between Co-Trustees and partners.” And “potential cooperators include….non-profit organizations and other appropriate entities.” (Hint: Clean Water Action Council is a non-profit organization.) On page 37, the Plan states, “By law, the trustees are responsible to the public for the damages being disbursed to restore resources injured by the release of hazardous substances.” This accountability and responsiveness simply isn't happening.
As the years go by, we are continually amazed at the way the agencies deliberately shoot themselves in the feet. They take simple ideas about public participation and twist them beyond recognition, thereby alienating members of the public who would otherwise be the most supportive and interested in helping their efforts. The Trustees should be viewing the public as a valuable information resource, instead they seem to work overtime to exclude public input whenever humanly possible.
It's possible that many of this day's problems can be excused as honest mistakes. But if the Trustee Council can't organize such a simple meeting properly, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that they can't design a decent public participation plan either. After all these years they still don't seem to "get it." Given that several of the people are trained public relations specialists, the mistakes are probably not innocent.
It was obvious from the Council’s behavior that the Wisconsin DNR is considered the leader, or more accurately, the problem to be worked around. The DNR staff are control freaks, defiant and unwilling to bend an inch to allow meaningful public input. A few of the other Council members seemed to be trying to moderate some of the more outrageous decisions announced by the DNR staff, with no effect. The DNR is going to do what the DNR wants. As always.
The Trustee Council won’t meet again formally for another 3 or 4 months. In the meantime, the DNR staff said the project approval process at the technical workgroup level will be ongoing, "like a revolving door.” They’re currently considering another 54 projects, which they refused to detail. They’re proceeding with no accountability to the public.
Meanwhile, the DNR’s public relations guys tell us they really want to involve the public.
CONTENT BY: Rebecca Leighton Katers
WEB DESIGN BY: DataScouts
WEB HOSTING BY: Doteasy