Grafton Select Board chair Al Sands may have violated the town’s two-year-old Code of Ethics by meeting with representatives of international wind industry company Iberdrola Renewables.
That possibility was brought up on Thursday, May 26, at Town Hall, during a special Select Board meeting held for the purpose of either replacing former Select Board member Gus Plummer or possibly setting a date for a townwide election.
The Select Board did set a tentative date of Tuesday, July 12 for a special election to replace Plummer, who resigned his seat after he received an anonymous threat in a note.* Town Clerk Kim Record confirmed on Tuesday, May 31, that the vote will take place at Town Hall, 117 Main St., on Tuesday, July 12.
But during the public comment portion of last Thursday’s special Select Board meeting, four residents once again addressed the need for government transparency and concerns over board chair Sands’ recent meeting with Iberdrola Renewables, which is hoping to erect eight 500-foot wind turbines in Grafton and 20 in Windham.
Although The Chester Telegraph reported earlier this week that state law may not apply to certain situations of public officials meeting in private with a party that will potentially do business in the town, David Muelrath read from the Town of Grafton Code of Conduct, a 10-page document adopted by the Select Board in October of 2014. It was signed by Skip Lisle, Joseph Plummer, Noralee Hall, Peter Jeziorski and Sam Battaglino.
He pointed to Section 4, covering Unilateral Communications by members of a public body:
In any matter before a Public Body, a member should not communicate with or accept a communication from a person the Public Body has reasonable grounds for believing is a party to the matter outside of a public hearing. The presiding officer of the Public Body may engage in such communication, if and only if, there is notice and opportunity to participate given to all parties in accord with 24 V.S.A.§ 1207 (a). A member should disclose any such communication at an open meeting of the Public Body prior to any consideration on the matter, and the member should recuse himself or herself, if appropriate. A “party” as used in this paragraph means a person who:
A. Holds an interest or has an agreement to acquire an interest in a business entity or the property of a business entity which desires to enter into any agreement with the Town, where the Town’s entering into the agreement depends upon the official action of the Public Body.
“This is pretty clear that we have a violation here,” said Muelrath.
The violation is possible because, although the voters will decide whether to accept the Iberdrola contract, town government – in effect the Select Board – could have contractual obligations with the company covering such areas as construction routes, road and infrastructure use and repair, noise levels, assessments for tax purposes, turbine and site maintenance and decommissioning.
Sands as an elected official met with representatives of Iberdrola on Tuesday, May 17. Although other members of the community were present, that portion of the Code of Conduct only covers members of public bodies such as the select board.
During Thursday’s meeting, Sands, responding to a question from the audience, said that, “I was aware of the Code of Conduct, aware before the (Iberdrola) meeting.”
Last Friday, The Telegraph provided Sands with a copy of the code, portions of which he said he had not seen before. “The original document was Conflict of Interest, done when I was on the board (in 2012). The Unilateral Communications was done by the 2014 board,” he said.
Ron Pilette, who has been on the board for more than a year, said he had received a copy of the code “early on” in his term and remaining board member Skip Lisle is one of the original signers of the code.
Asked his reaction to the Unilateral Communications section, Sands said it was the first time he had seen it. He added, “My feeling is the issue boils down to are we negotiating with them. I’ll have to read it again, but I can see where people would raise that issue.
“I don’t think I have done something wrong. But when I read that, I can see why people think that. But I didn’t negotiate, I didn’t accept any money, I didn’t make any promises. I’ve told Iberdrola that I haven’t made up my mind. Whatever happens, something will come from whatever a lawyer that we hire agrees to with Iberdrola … if the (town) vote is for Iberdrola (we need to get) the best possible outcome for the town.”
Asked how many times he has met with Iberdrola, Sands said, “Since (his election in) March, probably twice. In between board terms, I met with them as well.”
He also said that, “No, I will not be meeting with Iberdrola any more. But I have to read it (the Code of Conduct) more.”
On Tuesday, May 31, Sands told The Telegraph that he went to Town Offices earlier in the day. The office over the Memorial Day weekend “I just looked at my file and there is signed copy. I do not remember signing it. It is very odd how blurry it is. Don’t know what to make of it. It is certainly not an original.”
Asked what could happen next, Sands said, “I guess it’s up to the Select Board. If they want to call an executive session and prosecute me or whatever, it is up to the board.”
When asked if she was going to file a complaint against Sands, Liisa Kissel, an anti-wind advocate, would only say, “We are reviewing our options at this point.” “We,” she added are “a group of concerned citizens.”
Sections 7 to 12 of the Code of Ethics outlines the procedure for filing a complaint, establishing a board of ethics, which is led by the Select Board, acting on a complaint and issuing remedies.
Candidates sought for July election
As for the elections to replace Gus Plummer, Town Clerk Kim Record said petitions from candidates wishing to fill the seat will need to be submitted to Town Hall by 4 p.m. Monday, June 6. They must contain five valid signatures of voters in the town of Grafton.
The election was called for at a special meeting of the Select Board Thursday night, which was held after another meeting failed to materialize because it wasn’t warned properly. Grafton resident Don Dougall had gathered 31 valid signatures, more than necessary, to bring about election, and presented it to the assistant town clerk for validation earlier Thursday.
Sands then asked the audience of about 35 if anyone was interested in filling the seat for the six or so weeks until the election.
Jack Bryar, who sits on the Bellows Fall Union school board, stood to express his interest, saying that he wanted to be a neutral party among wind farm advocates and opponents. “There is going to be a vote on the (proposed 28-turbine Iberdrola) wind farm. Whatever happens, there will be suits from either side. There’s no win-win. All I’m offering to do is to be a neutral party,” he told the audience. The remaining four members of the board are divided between anti-wind (Skip Lisle and Ron Pilette) and “pro-process” (Al Sands and Cynthia Gibbs).
He added, “For the next few weeks, I’ll do everything I can to build a little trust, not because I have an agenda. I’m just trying to do the best for everybody.”
When the vote was called, Sands and Gibbs voted for Bryar; Lisle and Pilette voted against. Bryar responded, “That was my fear.”
On Friday, Dougall said he began the petition because, “I fully expected the result that transpired (Thursday night), that the board would split 2 to 2 and nothing would be resolved. We should start right away for the election. It has to warned and it takes a while to get things started.” As of Tuesday afternoon, Dougall was the only person to turn in a petition for election.
In other action, the board also voted to make Lisle vice chair, taking over for Sands, who as vice chair took over Plummer’s chairmanship duties when he resigned. And it voted to put Pilette on the personnel committee, another position that Plummer had held.
*According to Vermont State Police, the case was closed after they tried and failed to speak with Plummer.
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