Freedom remains a sharply divided community, and the annual town meeting Saturday did nothing to close the rift.
The core issue remains a proposal to install three wind turbines on Beaver Ridge. While many townspeople see the $12 million project as a tax windfall for Freedom, a group of neighboring property owners has raised questions about noise and other potential problems.
Several skirmishes related to the disagreement were fought during the town meeting. One of the first came in Article 20 of the 44-item warrant, which asked townspeople to raise $25,000 for legal services in the coming year.
“The selectmen’s letter [in the 2007 annual report] makes it clear that this money is to fight us, the people who live on Beaver Ridge, who don’t want to live among the turbines,” said Steve Bennett, a former selectman and a leading opponent of the wind project. “This fight should not be between us and the town. Article 20 is an attempt to get us [the town] to pay for the legal expenses of Ron Price [on whose land the project would be built] and Beaver Ridge Wind [the developer].”
Bennett said he had recently received a call from Richard Silkman, a principal in the wind project, who offered him up to $20,000 per year for each turbine Bennett would allow to be built on his land. “There’s a lot of money to be made by Ron Price and Beaver Ridge Wind,” said Bennett.
Price, a Freedom selectman, said Bennett was misrepresenting the legal wrangling over the project. In addition to a court case that seeks to determine the status of a road that would access the site, there are also looming legal questions about town permitting decisions in the matter, he said.
Furthermore, according to Price, the town could face legal expenses related to cleanup of the former warehouse at 28 Skidgel Lane. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Maine Department of Environmental Protection recently spent $368,000 to remove 10,000 pounds of paints and adhesives, 1,500 pounds of combustible or flammable liquids and 770 pounds of PCBs from the site, among other substances.
After extensive debate, moderator Walt Whitcomb ruled that a show of hands on the question was too close to call. Whitcomb ruled the first secret-ballot vote on the article was invalid, because a number of ballots were torn or otherwise altered. The vote “was essentially tied” except for the disqualified ballots, he said.
A second secret vote produced a narrow victory for those who wanted more money set aside for legal fees. “Thirty-two yes, 30 no and three blank ballots,” reported Whitcomb, “so your vote does count.”
A later move to revisit Article 20 failed for lack of the two-thirds majority required for reconsideration.
Bennett also raised questions about the selectmen’s presentation of budget figures in the annual report and warrant. He noted an apparent $37,000 error in reported 2007 appropriations for the summer roads account. Contracted service were approved at $20,000 during last year’s town meeting, not the $15,000 reported, according to Bennett.
Also, a reported $35,000 appropriation for “contracted services paving” was in fact rejected by voters, he said, as was a reported $7,000 commitment for maintenance.
Asked to explain the mistakes, Price said he couldn’t. He noted, however, the town had spent no money in the last two categories. While that’s true, Freedom spent $31,667.50 for contracted services in 2007, or $11,667.50 more than voters actually approved.
Bennett also questioned the expenditure of $5,125.50 for contracted services on winter roads. He asked if the contract had been put out to bid and proper notification published.
“We did not put it out to bid,” responded Price.
“Then it’s an illegal expenditure of town funds, plain and simple,” said Bennett.
Road commissioner Clint Spaulding, who performed the work, said he was approached by the town to perform the job. He submitted a bid of around $3,000, but it was rejected by the selectmen, who instead wanted to pay by the storm. Given the long and difficult winter, the job wound up costing $2,125.50 more than the amount initially bid by Spaulding.
A temporary adjournment for lunch followed. As always, the scrumptious meal set out in Freedom helped to calm tempers and thin the crowd.
After lunch, voters approved most of the remaining articles with little debate. A citizen’s proposal to “substantially increase the salt in the winter sand and salt mix,” the last item before adjournment, was turned down.
In the municipal election of Friday, March 28, Carol Richardson won the seat being vacated by Selectwoman Lynn Hadyniak with 110 votes. Scott Holmes garnered 31 ballots, and Steven Shaw got 30.
Cynthia Abbott was overwhelmingly returned as town clerk, tax collector and excise tax collector. Ernestine Keller was resoundingly elected treasurer.
By Andy Kekacs
VillageSoup/Waldo County Citizen Copy Editor
3 April 2008
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