Monday’s Grafton Select Board meeting was a long one made up of fits and starts as Town Attorney Robin Stern attempted to instill order in what has habitually been easily-derailed proceedings.
She was largely successful, thanks to newly elected Select Board chair Ron Pilette, who despite his own anti-industrial wind position, was more than willing to cut short any comments – most that came from those who are also anti-wind – that veered from the agenda.
Pilette’s election came on the heels of John Turner’s election last Tuesday to finish out the term of former board chair Gus Plummer, who resigned in early May following a threat. Upon the resignation, vice chair Al Sands took over as chair until a full board could elect one. If he wishes, Turner can stand for re-election in March of 2017.
Board member Skip Lisle had started the meeting by suggesting rearranging a very long agenda to move the board reorganization to the top from 6th place. Once that was done, over the objection of member Cynthia Gibb, Lisle nominated Pilette, who said he would accept the nomination “with trepidation.” At that point, Lisle, Pilette and Turner all voted aye, with Sands and board member Cynthia Gibbs remaining silent, which would continue throughout most of the votes during the three-hour meeting.
Turner then nominated Lisle as vice chair, which was approved again on a 3-aye to 2-silent vote. Next, Gibb nominated Turner as clerk of the Select Board, and that too was approved 3-aye to 2-silent. Lisle also recommended that both Sands and Pilette remain on the personnel committee, but when Sands refused, Turner’s name was put forward with Pilette’s. And again, a 3-aye, 2-silent vote was taken.
Both Lisle and Pilette praised Sands for his work as Select Board chair. “I appreciate the work that Al has done … I know there are deep divisions … but I appreciate the work Al has done on so many town issues,” said Pilette.
While some routine town business was handled – Road Foreman Danny Taylor is hoping to buy winter salt at $81.80 a ton as opposed to $85.13 and Lisle updated the community on a dumpsite that he has been monitoring on Houghtonville Road – the fat cookie at the meeting remained the proposed Iberdrola industrial wind project and how the town needs to approach it.
With a possible townwide yea or nay vote less than four months away, there is little time to waste in getting a Town Plan adopted, deciding on whether to set up an escrow account with Iberdrola funds and hire an attorney and whether to create committees to begin gathering and sharing information on the possible impacts – positive and negative – of such a project.
But before any of that could be taken up, Sands addressed a question asked several weeks ago by David Acker, a Planning Board member who has been concerned about government transparency and the potential health affects of the wind project. Acker had brought up a July 2016 letter in the Grafton News that addressed a March 2013 Windham Regional Commission meeting in which Sands, as Select Board chair, questioned the Windham Town Plan when it came to banning industrial wind. He also questioned that ban’s compatibility with the regional plan, state law and the Grafton Town Plan. You can read Sand’s remarks and a related letter here.
Pilette then asked Acker if he had a response. Acker reiterated his desire to have transparency from Sands and the board on the wind project. Lisle, who was also at the Windham Regional Commission meeting, began detailing his recollections of the meeting, adding that Sands has been saying he is neutral but attacks those against wind turbines.
Pilette interrupted Lisle, telling him that the discussion was about the Windham meeting and transparency. He added that Sands, as far as he was concerned, “was transparent enough.”
Both Pilette and Sands suggested specific wind-project related issues for Stern to address including when to engage in negotiations, the possible escrow account to cover town legal fees, information gathering and planning. Pilette added that the Code of Conduct issue that has been plaguing Sands “is not the most important of issues to discuss.”
Anita Siano suggested they discuss second-homeowner input and Acker suggested that Richard Saudek, who had spoken to the board and has negotiated on behalf of several towns facing similar projects, was not the best choice for an attorney.
Former Select Board chair Sam Battaglino attempted to present a letter from a private attorney he hired that disputed a conclusion by Stern on complaints that Sands violated the town’s Code of Conduct policy. You can read that letter here.
Stern had found no violation. As Noralee Hall, also a former Select Board member, waited at the mic to read the letter aloud, Stern said that she hadn’t read the letter, that it wasn’t on the agenda and that it “perpetuates what is happening,” seeming to be a reference to continuing stalemates and ill will.
Pilette stepped in and suggested that it would be best to wait since no one had read it.
Stern reiterated that there should be no problem with accepting the money from Iberdrola to set up the escrow account.
She also suggested the town should take an initial vote on whether the town should go forward with negotiations, before a possible November vote on the overall wind proposal. And she suggested that the laws were clear on who can legally vote on the project – that it is the registered voters of a town. But she added, “Non-residents pay hefty taxes. Their voices should be heard. There are ways to make their voices heard.” *
Pilette then addressed his idea for creating several committees to begin working on information-gathering on impacts on the environment, health and economics related to the industrial wind project. He had amended his earlier proposal to raise the number of members from three to five, including a non-committed member and a second homeowner, as well as a pro-wind person, an anti-wind person and a Select Board member who will lead each committee.
The proposal did not sit well with Sands, who suggested that the it was insulting to Town Treasurer Kim Record, who had attempted to launch a financial fact-finding committee last winter but was shot down after Lisle consulted with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
Lisle defended his actions as “due diligence” and not meant as an insult to Record.
After some back and forth between the two, Pilette interrupted, “It’s very easy for us to lose our way remembering past perceived hurts. .. If we really intend to do our best to … help the voters make the best decision by providing sufficient and useful information we have to move forward. We can’t keep on playing the past. It’s not a help to anybody.”
Board member Gibbs said she was not interested in serving on the committee and questioned how easy it would be to find people who would be, considering the commitment of time and burden of adhering to state Open Meeting regulations brought up by Stern.
Turner replied, “With an issue this large, if we don’t have citizens willing to step up and do this, then we aren’t in a really good place. I would implore people in the community to respond” to the call.
And Sands wondered if it would be possible to get a wide representation considering what he himself “has had to put up with” as far as criticisms and accusations.
But Stern applauded the board for attempting to move forward and urged it to make the committees and their work manageable, to encourage civility among all members, even those who disagree vehemently.
The motion to set up the committees passed. Anyone interested in serving on one of the committees is urged to contact Town Administrator Emily Huff. Her number is 843-2552.
Moving forward with Town Plan
And last, but not least, the crucial element of the Town Plan was addressed, with Planning Commission member Liisa Kissel saying she was willing to put in extra hours to complete the task of presenting the board with a completed draft no later than Tuesday, Sept. 6, as suggested by Pilette.
While Kissel said that the critically important energy chapter has been difficult, fellow commission member Rex James said, “There are very few small excerpts that are contentious.”
Pilette urged the commission to not take a position on a specific project but to instead craft guidelines that would apply to all projects.
Cynthia Prairie had to leave the meeting at this point and relied on a provided copy of a recording to report the remainder of the article.
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