Cutting constituents off from the opportunity to engage in public comment is the ultimate disrespect to students and the public at large. It means many members of the public can’t express their views to their elected representatives, which means many important voices go unheard.
For the second time, Montana’s Public Service Commission cancelled an open meeting shortly before its scheduled time on Oct. 15. The agency, which is responsible for regulating “the rates and service quality for investor owned electric, natural gas, water, waste-water, and legacy telecommunication companies,” was scheduled to discuss a fee that would make using solar energy more expensive for many Montanans.
UM students and Missoula residents who opposed the fee took time off of classes and work to drive nearly two hours to Helena so they could participate in public comment. They were given no explanation regarding the cancellation.
Regardless of the reasons behind cancelling the meetings, the PSC’s move signaled a lack of respect and consideration for constituents’ opinions. The public should have ample opportunity to know the time and location of any public meeting. They should also have ample opportunity to reschedule based on any changes. The government’s ability to function depends on a robust connection with the public, yet there are still many barriers to participation, especially among students.
According to an annual survey conducted by U.S. News, between 2016 and 2017, fewer than 50% of university students nationwide brought a car to campus. Since nearly all meetings between state government officials are held in Helena, many students may not have a way to travel to them. Those who do often must take time off from their classes or work, spending a significant amount of money on gas in the process.
When officials cancel an open meeting, they limit the voices they hear about an issue. Student participation in government doesn’t just depend on students’ efforts to participate. It also depends on the government’s willingness to accommodate and respect their participation.