Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vox Populi, or, Why Did PSNH Back Out of Talking to Real NH Citizens in Moultonborough on August 24th?

“There is something unique in New Hampshire in the way that citizens work through issues. . . . They do it in personal dialogue by talking with friends. Or talking at a diner or sitting across from someone at the table. When that is the environment, I think you want to communicate in a way that resonates in that environment.”*

So said Marie van Luling, vice president for communications at Northeast Utilities in Hartford Connecticut, on July 1, 2011. When van Luling assumed the Northern Pass leadership role in August, statements like this suggested that a new directness would follow, a willingness on the part of PSNH and NPT to engage in dialogue with New Hampshire citizens, rather than the prevailing one-way, arm’s length communications strategy of bombarding the state with endless misleading ads about everything from broadband to jobs to tax benefits.

Not so on the evening of August 24th in Moultonborough. The promised candor was nowhere in sight. Neither was PSNH. When PSNH heard that three New Hampshire citizens would sit across the table from them to “work through issues” about Northern Pass, they abruptly backed out of the debate organized by the Lakes Region Tea Party. PSNH said something about feeling "vulnerable," according to the event organizer.

Later, PSNH's Martin Murray excused the sudden no-show on the grounds that the company had already attended over 100 public meetings.** He neglected to mention that the so-called informational meetings that PSNH held for NH citizens took place without mentioning the details of the transmission project such as the need for eminent domain and tower heights. This was all part of the "don't get specific with the public" strategy. As Patrick McDermott phrased it, PSNH was to "keep to a high-level, consistent message."*** That is, to keep the public in the dark as much as possible for as long as possible.

What would make PSNH feel vulnerable about actually having to talk with New Hampshire citizens? Was it that their vaunted $23.9 million tax benefit to towns is a first-year only figure, before depreciation sets in? Was it, as van Luling has admitted, that the jobs are only temporary? Was it that the broad band promise can’t happen? Was it that their offer to hide the sale of ROW property to them in Clarksville in a blind trust LLC shocked people? Was it that the subject of burying the lines along public ROWs would surely come up?

Or did the prospect of having to discuss eminent domain “across the table” from three New Hampshire citizens strike fear into PSNH’s heart? Did they realize that they could not pretend that the proposed route on the lower 140 miles is all sewn up? Stock analysts in New York may be fooled by that ruse, for now, but New Hampshire citizens know better. They know that the necessary miles and miles of new and adjacent (aka “expanded”) ROWs below Groveton would have to be seized by eminent domain.

Only PSNH can answer why it felt vulnerable talking to NH citizens, but there are more than enough possible reasons. And, ironically, it looks like the new candor promised by van Luling’s assumption of the NPT leadership role this month won’t amount to anything more than those folksy vox pop “My New Hampshire” ads in which “Doug,” “Christine and George,” and “Jack” gush about Northern Pass and everybody else wonders how much these people are being paid to gush.

When PSNH/NPT was given the chance on August 24th to talk across the table with real New Hampshire citizens, not ersatz "Doug," "Jack," et al., their tongues were suddenly tied. The ancient proverb, “vox populi vox dei” (“the voice of the people is the voice of god -- the voice of truth"), sent them packing.

*Quoted from Annmarie Timmins, "Vox populi Northern Pass-style," Concord Monitor, July 1, 2011, reprinted here.

**From Paula Tracy, "50 attend Moultonborough forum on Northern Pass," Union Leader, August 25, 2011.

***From Ron Starner, "Power to the People," Site Selection Magazine, March, 2010.