ANTRIM – A month after a group of Antrim residents alleged the Board of Selectmen held illegal meetings, five residents have filed a lawsuit against the board claiming it violated the state’s Right to Know law.
In a lawsuit dated July 30, the plaintiffs allege that selectmen decided on the terms of a payment plan with a wind energy company in a series of secret meetings. Those meetings violate the Right to Know law’s requirements for posting notices of meetings in advance, preparing and posting meeting minutes, and properly using nonpublic sessions, according to the lawsuit.
On June 20, selectmen approved a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement with Antrim Wind Energy. A subsidiary of Portsmouth-based Eolian Renewable Energy, Antrim Wind wants to build 10 wind turbines on Tuttle Hill.
The project is currently under the control of the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee because of its large size, about 30 megawatts.
The lawsuit states that “the conscious decision to exclude the public and to meet in secret rendered the Nov. 30 and June 20 public hearings meaningless,” and asks that the Hillsborough County Superior Court invalidate the PILOT agreement that was approved on June 20.
The lawsuit also asks for an injunction ordering selectmen to abide by the Right to Know law.
“This was not an oversight, this was not an isolated instance where the requisites of the statute were mistakenly overlooked,” the lawsuit reads. “These secret meetings were structured to exclude the public.”
The plaintiffs – Gordon Allen, Mary Allen, Charles Levesque, Janice Longgood and Martha Pinello – are five of the seven residents who sent a letter on June 14 to selectmen requesting dates, time, public notices and minutes for any meetings between selectmen and Antrim Wind representatives.
In a letter dated June 19, the selectmen’s attorney Robert W. Upton 2nd responded to the June 14 letter listing five dates from February 2011 to April 2012 when selectmen and Antrim Wind representatives met to negotiate the PILOT agreement.
His letter states that RSA 72:74, which allows a town to enter into a PILOT agreement, “clearly contemplates that these kinds of negotiations would not occur in a public meeting” because confidential financial information was discussed.
The statute requires selectmen to hold a public hearing after the negotiations are complete so the public has an opportunity to question the PILOT agreement, according to Upton’s letter.
But the plaintiffs counter in the lawsuit that the private meetings do not state the provision of the Right to Know law that would have allowed the Board of Selectman to go into nonpublic sessions, and in fact, that there is no part of the nonpublic meeting requirements that would allow for discussion of a PILOT agreement.
Further, the plaintiffs argue in the lawsuit that since the public could not attend meetings where details of the PILOT agreement were negotiated, members of the public had no opportunity to understand the subject matter at the two public hearings.
Upton could not be reached for comment this morning.
Levesque has previously said that he is not opposed to the wind farm, but that there is no doubt that the selectmen held illegal meetings.
Finally, the lawsuit claims that while the wind-turbine project falls under the jurisdiction of the state’s Site Evaluation Committee, tax assessing and the decision to enter into a PILOT agreement are the sole jurisdiction of the Board of Selectmen.
The state committee is expected to reach a decision on whether the project is approved in the fall.