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Citizen Sues To Save Vermont Interactive Technologies

Hilary Niles
Vermont's decades-old statewide videoconferencing system is set to shut down at the end of 2015. Stephen Whitaker, a long time advocate of the system, has sued to block the shutdown.

Vermont's decades-old statewide videoconferencing system is days away from being dismantled. But a central Vermont man who has fought the dissolution of Vermont Interactive Technologies is now taking his fight to court.

At a preliminary injunction hearing, held Tuesday in Washington County Superior Court, Vermont Telecommunications chief Jim Porter said the state has little choice. With no more money from the state, Vermont Interactive Technologies will all but evaporate by Jan. 1, 2016.

Porter told Judge Timothy Tomasi that somebody has got to figure out how to secure the equipment in preparation for the Jan. 1 deadline.

"I think the concern was, that the Legislature had funded VIT through the end of December," Porter testified. "And that as best we knew, there was no accommodation made for anything after Dec. 31. There were no employees that would be left, and we believed the equipment had to be gathered or secured."

Porter chaired a working group tasked with recommending how to dissolve VIT and still meet its public mission. He determined the best thing to do is warehouse the equipment from VIT's dozen-plus locations, until the Legislature reconvenes in January, when lawmakers can figures out a long-term solution.

Stephen Whitaker is not satisfied. He's a vocal citizen and longtime advocate for public access and information technology. He testified Tuesday that no one knows enough about VIT's equipment to be able to take it apart properly.

"It would be cost-prohibitive to reassemble the system, if it were dismantled," Whitaker said. "Especially in that there is no documentation of how the system is wired together, or how it's operated."

Whitaker said Porter's plan would essentially turn $22 million dollars of taxpayer investments, over about 25 years, into a "pile of parts."

Whitaker said [the proposed] plan would essentially turn $22 million dollars of taxpayer investments, over about 25 years, into a "pile of parts."

But it's not just waste he's trying to stop. He says without VIT, Vermont will have no effective means for holding public hearings statewide, such as those organized by the Public Service Board.

"VIT technology is what I refer to as 'facilitated,'" Whitaker said from the witness stand. "There is a skilled technician at every site. And a manual override decision can be made to switch cameras from the hearing officer to the witness to another site, or to mute or un-mute a particular microphone. Those are features that VIT has that consumer video conferencing technology does not have, thereby making VIT's technology suitable for public hearings - managed public hearings where order must be maintained."

Judge Tomasi is considering Whitaker's argument, which is related to a separate allegation that the Vermont's current statewide Telecommunications Plan is invalid because the Department of Public Service didn't hold proper hearings before adopting it.

That case will be heard in January.

A decision regarding the potential injunction against dismantling the VIT equipment is expected soon.

Update Dec. 28 1:12 p.m. Superior Court Judge Timothy Tomasi denied Whitaker's request for an injunction in a ruling handed down Dec. 24.

"Many would share his [Whitaker's] feelings, and everyone would hope that Vermonters will always be afforded meaningful ways of participating in governmental activities," Tomasi wrote. Ultimately, though, Tomasi wrote that Whitaker failed to meet the "heavy burden of establishing a clear right to injunctive relief" in the case.

Hilary is an independent investigative reporter, data journalism consultant and researcher based in Montpelier. She specializes in telling stories of how public policy shapes people's daily lives.
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