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Westport selectmen balk at Town Meeting windmill approval

The Board of Selectmen is still doubtful about erecting a wind turbine behind Town Hall, despite Town Meeting approval, angering supporters of the project.

By a 4-1 ratio on Tuesday night, voters approved the project and transferring $63,400 from the town’s stabilization fund to pay for it.

The board has summoned the Alternative Energy Committee, sponsor of the Town Meeting article, to its meeting on Monday to answer questions about the project, said board Chairwoman Veronica F. Beaulieu.

“I need some more answers,” she said. “I have questions that I have tried to get answers for from that committee. I’ve asked for the minutes of their meetings, so I can learn the background of this. I have never received them. Every board is supposed to send their minutes to the selectmen.

“How will they pay back the stabilization fund? The article says this is for Town Hall. Where will it be located? How do they plan to connect the wind turbine to Town Hall? They can’t dig up the parking lot (to bury electric cable), because there are storage tanks under there. Several of us have a number of questions.”

The prospect of the Board of Selectmen – which voted 3-2 to oppose the article – not exercising the authorization by Town Meeting to put up the wind turbine miffs supporters. The Finance Committee also disapproved of the article.

“Can the board overturn the will of the Town Meeting?” asked Eileen Wheeler Sheehan, a windmill supporter. She said she thinks the selectmen can “thwart the will of the Town Meeting” and take “political cover” behind the Finance Committee’s rejection of the project.

The selectmen are not required to follow the votes of Town Meeting, said Town Moderator Steven Fors.

“Town Meeting is the legislative branch of government,” Mr. Fors said. “Town Meeting determines appropriations or spending and writes bylaws.

“The selectmen are the executive branch of town government. They operate the town and they sign contracts. Town Meeting appropriated a sum of money for the construction of a windmill. Town Meeting cannot order the selectmen to construct the windmill.”

A board of selectmen not carrying through with an approved town meeting article is not a rare occurrence in Massachusetts, said Paul Connolly, president of the Massachusetts Moderators Association.

“It does happen,” Mr. Connolly said. “But usually the board of selectmen is on the side of the town meeting taking the action.”

Town meeting authorizes a board of selectmen to act. On the occasions when boards don’t act on an approval, it usually involves financial issues where the circumstances are at variance from what they were originally, Mr. Connolly said.

Nonetheless, Selectman Steven J. Ouellette, who with J. Duncan Albert was on the losing end of the 3-2 selectmen vote, disagrees with Mrs. Beaulieu’s decision to call the energy committee in for a talk.

“I am deeply disappointed if we aren’t going to carry through on what the people of Westport want,” Mr. Ouellette said.

He contended that former Selectman David P. Dionne, the mover behind the wind turbine project, “has made concessions, increased the height of the wind turbine to 120 feet after they criticized the proposal for an 80-foot wind turbine. I don’t understand their opposition.”

Mrs. Beaulieu asserted, “I am not opposed to a windmill. I am willing to take that kind of step. I don’t feel it was a necessity to get this done without having the facts.”

Others in town contend it isn’t an absence of facts that are a hindrance for the selectmen, rather that Mr. Dionne, who left office in April, had the idea. Further, Claude Ledoux, a backer of the conservatives who hold a majority on the board, and Mr. Dionne are bitter political adversaries.

Mr. Dionne did not seek re-election this year. In his final year in office he often jousted with Mrs. Beaulieu and Selectman Rob Rebello. Mr. Dionne belittled as “Claude Ledoux’s stooge” Mr. Rebello last winter when he brought a lengthy list of complaints against the Conservation Commission.

Throughout the windmill debate this year, the lines of support and opposition have coalesced along one of Westport’s most weathered political fault lines, euphemistically identified as “The Good Ole Boys” versus “The Elites.”

Early on, Mr. Ledoux, a conservative former selectman who is identified with “The Good Ole Boys” struck out at the windmill idea, questioning the reliability of Mr. Dionne’s assessment that it would save money on Town Hall electric bills.

“This is all part of the Claude Ledoux wrecking crew,” Mr. Dionne responded as the debate raged in February.

Mr. Fors in his own right has incurred the disapproval of Mrs. Beaulieu and Selectman Gary Earle Mauk. Mr. Fors ruled out of order Mr. Mauk’s motion at Town Meeting for a reconsideration of the windmill vote.

Although Mr. Mauk moved for reconsideration of the article within the required 20 minutes time frame, he did so after most of its supporters left the session.

Mr. Fors cited the law that Mr. Mauk failed to convince him that reconsideration would have offered some significant value to the meeting beyond restacking the hall.

“He waited for the room to empty of the supporters of the windmill,” Mr. Fors said. “And he moved to reconsider to take advantage of that. That’s why I ruled him out of order.”

By Joseph R. LaPlante
Standard-Times staff writer

southcoasttoday.com

4 May 2007