Speaker on Coal, Part II

As I noted yesterday, there was a guest speaker at last night's City Commission meeting, a Mr. Kenneth Reich, a Boston attorney. Inexplicably, he spoke as a part of the City Manager's report, and was therefore not listed on the agenda (nor was the subject he discussed, the Highwood Generating Station Environmental Impact Statement).

According to City Manager, John Lawton, Mr. Reich is admitted to practice law in Montana. I heard, though it is entirely unsubstantiated, that he has been admitted pro hac vice, rather than as a member of the Montana Bar Association. That is not really pertinent because a pro hac vice admission is entirely appropriate for the purpose for which it is granted, but I offer it to, perhaps, tell the whole story.

Manager Lawton then went on to state that Mr. Reich represents SME, and that he came to speak in Great Falls at the request of our City Commission. Presumably, then, SME paid for his attendance at the meeting. Therefore, it is important to remember that he did not testify as an independent expert witness, but as a paid advocate for a party to this process.

It is interesting to me, too, that the City Commission specifically invited an expert to present paid 'testimony' in a public forum on a controversial, or at least closely watched, issue, yet did not see fit to include his appearance on the public agenda. More on the manner of his presentation in a moment.

It was clear from his discussion that Mr. Reich is very knowledgeable, but I had a tough time understanding the purpose for his speaking at the meeting. His talk was, essentially, a primer on the Environmental Impact Statement process in general, something that can be located relatively easily online, if not gleaned from the document itself. Further, I believe that this process is nearly complete on this project.

He went on to state that, in his paid opinion, the EIS process had been fully complied with, and he believed that the final EIS will very closely resemble the draft EIS linked above. These were probably not difficult conclusions for him to reach since, as SME's attorney, he might well have been the lawyer who handled the process.

Two questions were asked of him by Commissioners: How many comments were received? About 500. How much redundancy was there in the comments? Quite a bit.

All in all, it was about what one would expect from a public report from an attorney to his (or her) client.

My concern, as with most of these issues, is how it was handled. His presence was not announced in advance by agenda, but was on an inside page of the Tribune. He was scheduled in a way that his statements could not be questioned or challenged by opponents of the coal plant. No public comment was allowed immediately after his talk, instead being relegated to the end of the meeting with the 3-minute time limitation. No member of the public was allowed to pose questions.

See, this is what the City doesn't 'get.' Mr. Reich is a very knowledgeable gentleman, and has nothing to hide. While we can disagree about the propriety of the coal plant, he has done nothing wrong. So why not let the public get involved? Why not let them pose questions? By handling it the way it was handled, the City only breeds suspicion, distrust, and ill-will. All the opponents are grumbling today about their inability to effectively comment, when instead it could have been an opportunity for opponents to voice, and Mr. Reich to deflect, their concerns.

Openness and participation are good things.

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