September 20, 2023
Dear Chairman Thompson,
We write to share concerns about Public Service Commission staff delaying and blocking some members of the public from attending a hearing scheduled to begin at 10:15am on September 13 on Formal Case 1169, in which Washington Gas seeks a 20% rate increase. An account of our experience is below, followed by some questions.
Just before 10am that morning, climate advocates with the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN Action Fund) entered the lobby of the office building at 1325 G Street NW that houses the Commission's office. A Commission staffer in the lobby asked everyone to sign in and then held Sierra Club and CCAN Action Fund staff and volunteers in the lobby while the Commission staffer said he awaited “guidance” on our entry to the Commission's office. We waited in the lobby for approximately 20 minutes until we were allowed up to the Commission’s 8th floor office.
Once in the Commission’s office, we planned to enter the hearing room, but another Commission staffer told us we were not allowed to enter. She stood in front of the door, physically blocking us from entering it. She said that because we arrived after the Washington Gas attorney had begun speaking, we would not be allowed to enter the room until the presentation from the Washington Gas attorney was over so as to avoid a distraction in the room. We told her that we arrived after the presentation began only because Commission staff in the lobby delayed our entrance to the Commission’s office for 20 minutes. We also noted that federal courts – including the Supreme Court – allow people to enter and exit courtrooms during oral argument. And we questioned the legality of blocking some members of the public from attending a public meeting. The Commission staffer replied that she was just following orders. We asked her to ask whoever gave the order to reconsider, given that we had a right to be in the room. She agreed, briefly entered the hearing room (while a security guard remained with us outside the room), and then returned, saying she was again ordered not to allow us to enter. We began taking photos and tweeting about being blocked from the room. After blocking us for about 15 minutes after the initial delay of about 20 minutes in the lobby, we were told we could enter the hearing room, but only through the backdoor.
After we entered the hearing room, there were no further attempts by Commission staff to interfere with our ability to view the proceeding, though we had already missed much of the presentation by the Washington Gas attorney. Later in the hearing, as the Sierra Club’s counsel spoke, a Washington Gas lobbyist stood up, walked across the room, exited through the very door we were prevented from using, and a few minutes later, walked back into the hearing room through the same door.
We would like for the Commission to understand why its staff delayed and blocked our entry and, most importantly, we want to ensure it does not happen again. We request that you reply to us via email with answers to the following questions:
- Why did Commission staff delay us in the lobby, allowing us to enter the Commission’s office only after the hearing began?
- Why did Commission staff block us from entering the hearing room for approximately 15 minutes?
- Why did there appear to be different standards for climate advocates and for others, including allowing a Washington Gas lobbyist to exit and enter the room freely during the presentation from the Sierra Club counsel but preventing climate advocates – including those from the Sierra Club, a formal party to the case – from entering the room during the presentation from the Washington Gas lawyer?
- Have you identified who issued the order to delay us in the lobby and block us from entering the hearing room? And have you instructed the person or people not to repeat it?
- Do you guarantee that no Commission staff will again delay entry, block entry, or otherwise impede public participation at future Commission proceedings?
We have a related concern about conflicting information from Commission staff regarding accouterments worn by members of the public. The morning of the hearing, a volunteer with the CCAN Action Fund wore buttons and stickers opposing the continued use of fossil fuel. A staffer told her the buttons and stickers constituted “protest materials” and that she would have to remove them or be barred from entering the room. A member of the news media asked Commission staff about this and said she was told by Commission staff that there were no such prohibitions and that people could bring buttons and stickers, as well as signs and posters, into the hearing room.
We request that you resolve the conflicting information from Commission staff on this matter by replying to us via email with answers to the following questions:
- Are signs and posters allowed into venues hosting Commission proceedings?
- Does the Commission bar entry to its proceedings to people wearing or physically carrying messages about fossil fuels?
We value the opportunities offered by the Commission for the public to engage with the Commission’s proceedings, especially because it allows for increased civic engagement, education, and transparency. We plan to continue to engage our volunteers, staff, and the public in cases before the Commission, so we urgently need to understand the Commission’s practices for public attendance at its meetings and whether we will again be delayed and blocked from attending Commission proceedings.
We look forward to your timely response.
CCAN Action Fund
Commissioner Richard Beverly
Commissioner Ted Trabue