During the summer and autumn of 2017, a series of public discussions spearheaded by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) attempted to influence select Vermont communities to adopt climate-change-oriented economic plans.
Billed as grassroots initiatives, the multi-town discussions got activists and local residents to explore everything from a carbon tax and alternative modes of transportation to abandonment of fossil fuels.
VCRD’s climate-change economy discussions got off to a contentious start in Pownal when some residents felt that the big hand of progressive state government was coming to town with an international green agenda.
Two years after the Pownal climate-economy discussion, Pownal Selectboard member Bob Jarvis still expresses concern and skepticism about the meetings, which ironically, didn’t make much of an impact on Pownal’s town plans.
“Of course that particular effort is over now, but I still assert that this was an example of ‘climate change’ being used for increasing government power and control,” Jarvis told True North in a recent interview.
Jarvis recalled that his concerns, as well as the concerns of other local voters, came from the “Progress for Vermont” report crafted by VCRD. The guide included objectives for “compact and smart growth development” and “a carbon pricing or trading structure for Vermont.”
“It’s a point of fact [that] the climate economy idea is really a state program, but the VCRD effort was being portrayed here as a grassroots initiative. To me that’s provably false,” he said. “Sure, some local folks joined and still support the climate-economy agenda, but you can always find local people to support a contentious national or international political agenda. So, just finding local people to agree does not mean it’s any kind of genuine grassroots effort.”
Jarvis noted that several residents were vocal in opposing the non-local effort. Some were critical of the fact that standard democratic processes such as open meeting laws, public comment sessions and town-wide voting were being ignored by VCRD.
One of those critics, Melissa Collins, told True North in 2017 she was skeptical of the way VCRD introduced the discussions to local residents.
“We aren’t allowed to vote on any of the initiatives coming out of the program that could change the very make-up of our town,” she said at the time. “They are fast-tracking the program and going all over the state, city by city.”
Jarvis said a couple local initiatives sprang from those discussions “but none of them ever made it to the balloting stage.”
Some Pownal voters who favored the climate economy discussions came away from the effort upset that little transpired, according to Jarvis.
“They lamented that they couldn’t have done more in getting a climate economy plan adopted because people like me opposed it as a government initiative,” Jarvis said. “They like to apply the term ‘provincial’ to folks like me who are wary of the origins of these plans.”
VCRD’s Jon Copans, who led the climate economy discussions in Pownal and elsewhere, has moved on from the 2017 public discussions.
“The way our program is designed,” Copans told True North, “is that we have a one-year commitment from when we kicked off the climate-economy program. … So I have not been involved in Pownal since then. But I was in Middlebury a few weeks ago, and things are mostly in the hands of the local team there and moving ahead”
Copans said that Middlebury had a Town Meeting Day resolution regarding the climate economy initiative that was “probably due to our discussions,” but added it’s now up to local task forces to move forward with plans that may have emerged from the original discussions.
“For example, Pownal Discover, based in Pownal, is a nonprofit group. It emerged after our discussions,” he said. “There was a recent task force pot luck gathering, so things are still underway there.”
But Jarvis says the experience illustrates an ongoing problem with Vermont’s so-called grassroots progressive politics.
“What I find troublesome after all this is said and done is that there are volunteer organizations that are being intertwined with government and organizations with national and international agendas,” Jarvis said. “I think this fact lessens the effectiveness of local volunteering; it should be separated.
“I see that many of the same people engaged (in these activist efforts) are actively engaged in government, too — they are on the selectboard and on local planning commissions. There are now all kinds of pressures on selectboards to relinquish their voice, decision making powers, and control to a new class of hired professionals.”
Some worry that a trend has begun that involves a transfer of power to planning commissions, which are not elected by the people, Jarvis says. For example, Pownal has not elected a new town administrator, and there has been a push to lessen the power of the selectboard.
“These are not good trends,” Jarvis said. “Many of these same individuals want to relinquish the power of local selectboards and see the increase of planning commission power, just as we redefine zoning and other regulations here in Pownal. There doesn’t seem to be a big desire to want to be creative in protecting the liberty of our citizens.”
Middlebury is another town targeted by the VCRD. The liberal community has been supportive of most climate-change efforts at the state and local level. On Town Meeting Day, voters in passed 350 Vermont’s Climate Solutions agenda for the town. Article 9, which was approved 802-237 by ballot voting, asked voters to advise the local Selectboard to send a letter to state legislators and Gov. Phil Scott to support a resolution that asked the state of Vermont to halt any new or expanded fossil fuel infrastructure and commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, among other things.
Copans said the VCRD vision is catching on and growing, even two years after initial town visits.
“The climate-economy group in Middlebury led by Steve Maier and others may start up a non-profit to continue the agenda in the town and Addison County as a whole,” Copans told True North. “They will probably make an announcement about this soon, but it’s not my news to share at the moment.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.