|Excerpts from Interview
with Elizabeth Courtney
Elizabeth Courtney has served as executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council for the past five years. Before coming to the Council she did private consulting for a couple of years. She was a Loeb fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard University. Courtney served on the Vermont Environmental Board for nine years. When Gov. Madeline Kunin (D) appointed her a member of the Board, basically a volunteer capacity, she had her own business practicing landscape architecture and regional planning. Gov. Richard Snelling (R) appointed her chair, a full-time position, and she was kept on by Gov. Dean until in 1994 the Republican-controlled Senate refused to re-confirm her to the post.
Courtney spoke with DEMOCRACY
IN ACTION in her office at the VNRC on July 10, 2002. The first part
of the interview covered her tenure as chair of the Environmental Board,
the second part her observations on Gov. Dean's environmental record, and
the third part her observations on Gov. Dean generally.
|QUESTION: Why was there controversy over your re-appointment?
COURTNEY: When he re-appointed me, at that time the Senate was 16-14 in favor of the Republicans; we were coming out of a long recession; there was concern about Act 250 being a deterrent to development in Vermont, a deterrent to economic progress, and the Environmental Board was identified as a body that was keeping progress from happening in Vermont. So the governor's appointment was challenged by the Senate Natural Resources Committee and by the Senate and we lost.
QUESTION: Did Gov. Dean put up a fight at all for that?
COURTNEY: Yes we had a vote by the committee and the Senate, and Howard reappointed all three of us. He said, well I'm going to reappoint you and you're [in the Senate] going to have to prove to me that these three individuals are not fit for the job and he lost again. It was quite a dramatic winter.
QUESTION: When did you first meet him?
COURTNEY: Well I certainly met him as lieutenant governor, but the first time I really met him in a substantive way was the morning that Dick Snelling died. And he called all of his Cabinet in at 8 o'clock in the morning that Dick was found dead at his residence. And we were all expecting to be excused from our jobs and sent along our way and weren't, and I was very impressed with the governor's composure and clear thinking and his willingness and interest in talking with each one of us individually, and he set up meetings so that he could begin to understand who his cabinet was. And he certainly wasn't about to purge and start all over again. So we engaged in a process of conversation and relationship development. So that was the beginning of my relationship with Howard Dean.
QUESTION: In that first year-plus were there any major issues preoccupying him vis a vis the environment that you were dealing with?
COURTNEY: Not that I recall. Not initially. The economy, it was definitely it's the economy stupid. That was the concern of that time. I think in the early 90s the rest of the country seemed to be pulling out of the recession and Vermont seemed to be languishing in it... He was definitely focused on our budget deficit at that time.
And so the issue that Howard Dean and I became embroiled in didn't surface until '93. The election was in [November] '92... His first appointment of me was January of '93. And it was January of '93 with that appointment that the Senate said, we don't know if we will ratify that appointment; we don't know if we'll confirm that appointment; we'll wait until next January to decide. And I knew I was being watched because I was essentially put on notice by the Senate.
So we conducted our hearings. We had very heavy docket. One of the cases that we heard that year was C & S Wholesale Grocers in Brattleboro, and it was a very controversial project. And the Board made a decision to issue a permit that was heavily conditioned to reduce air pollution from the tractor trailer truck trips that were coming in and out of that facility. So the issue was air pollution. We had received evidence, credible evidence, that there would be some real air quality concern because of the nature of this traffic that was going in and out of this facility off the interstate, making stops and starts and refers were on site--a refer is a refrigerated truck that runs all the time; they don't turn them off and they produce a lot of particulate matter from the diesel. So we conditioned it thinking gee maybe we can make this work with conditions. The applicant was very disappointed in the permit.
The governor for the first time in the history of Act 250, we found the governor opining on the opinion of the Board, publicly, openly criticizing it. We were, we simply watched that public criticism translate to a fortified Senate majority that was basically going to say, okay here you are criticizing your appointee. Implicitly, we'll help you make that decision you haven't been able to make yourself. Well, the Board, several of the members and myself met with the governor and let him know that we were disappointed to see that his opinion of our decision was what it was and that he made it public.
QUESTION: That was in '93?
COURTNEY: That was in '93. I think the decision came out late
in the year; it might have been September or October. And then the
following winter when the legislature came back into session it was taken
up by the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
COURTNEY: What Howard Dean absolutely has excelled in is protecting, conserving Vermont land through acquisition. The Champion land deal is one of the penultimate accomplishments of his administration that he helped to facilitate that. And that was no easy process. It's very complicated. 133,000 acres in the Northeast Kingdom that was owned by the Champion Paper Co and when they said that they were putting it up on the sale block, it could have gone to another paper company, a development company, or whatever But it is now part of federal and state public lands as well as in the ownership of a private consortium that is sustainably harvesting the property--the Vermont Land Trust, and the Nature Conservancy, and the Conservation Fund all had a hand in securing that property. The state also was a contributor and Howard Dean helped it.
QUESTION: Did he get flack for doing that?
COURTNEY: Yeah. It's very controversial; it remains very controversial. The legislation that facilitated its passage was passed in 1999 and this year in 2002 it was still a major issue in the legislature. So it was at least a three-year concern.
QUESTION: When you say he helped facilitate, what does that mean. Is he a hands on guy?
COURTNEY: He's hands on. He would pick up the phone. I know that it was a top priority of his, and whatever his means were I don't know, but he made it very clear to everyone that he wanted to see this happen. So ultimately it was a legislative issue and he was very forthright and unabashed about making his opinion known to legislators.
QUESTION: What about land in other parts of the states?
COURTNEY: Yes there are numerous other land acquisitions--there's the Deerfield River watershed; there was a significant land deal there which was back in '95.
QUESTION: Is there another issue that he's excelled on, done well on?
COURTNEY: Actually an issue that he hasn't had a chance to secure is the protecting of the corridor along the interstates. He's been very interested in ways in which to protect that I-91 and I-89 corridor.
QUESTION: How about the flip side, areas where he could have done better?
COURTNEY: Well I think the area where in retrospect where we could have seen better performance is in water quality and the compliance with the Clean Water Act. The State of Vermont is ten years delinquent in meeting the requirements of the Clean Water Act to have basin watershed plans in place.
QUESTION: Is that unusual as you look across the nation?
COURTNEY: I think we are not a leader. We have high expectations in Vermont to be environmental leaders and in this case we are not even remotely getting close to being a leader in terms of complying with the Clean Water Act.
QUESTION: And does this have to do with Lake Champlain and the storm water runoff?
COURTNEY: Yes. It's the nonpoint source pollutants that are the concern. As far as point source goes we are adequately providing for wastewater treatment plants and cleaning up point source. But that next sort of horizon of issues to tackle in the Clean Water Act haven't been. It can't be laid entirely at the feet of the governor. It's largely an issue that the legislature hasn't funded the agency adequately to do the job. So it's a combination of leadership on the one hand and the funding on the other and it's disappointing to see that Vermont is as far behind as it is.
QUESTION: You say in retrospect. Does that mean that two or three years ago people did not see this as a problem?
COURTNEY: I think that the problem has been brewing and there has been
a vague awareness of it. Certainly organizations like the NRC have
been very aware of this for many years. But what happened last fall
was the fact that this hasn't been moving along resulted in a problem for
the development community. And that was a decision that was handed
down by the Water Resources
Board that said that a Lowes-Hannaford development couldn't proceed
because it would add polluted runoff to an already polluted stream and
there was no plan in place by the state to clean up that stream.
So that lack of attention to that process slammed Hannaford-Lowes square
in the face.
COURTNEY: I think that part of Howard Dean's success in Vermont has been his fresh candor and intelligence. You always know where Howard Dean stands. He is candid and honest in his communications with Vermonters, and he is appreciated for that. He's also very bright, and he has a clear sense of his direction. So all of those things are very appealing and certainly lend to a strong leadership style. On the other hand, those very qualities that make him a strong leader also lend hip to being opinionated in a way that make it difficult to influence him.
QUESTION: Would he make a good president?
COURTNEY: Boy that is such a tough--what makes a good president, that's
a huge conversation. Running this country is a huge job. When
you consider who we've has it's all relative. Yes, I think he would
make, he could make--Howard Dean could make a great president. He
certainly has the drive, he has the intelligence; he cares very deeply
about issues that relate to health and health care and the economy.
He very fiscally responsible. So I think he could do a good job.
Copyright © 2002 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action