Following the rollout on Tuesday of Iberdrola Renewables’ “sweetened deals” to the towns of Windham and Grafton, there were outcries that the Spanish wind company was “bribing” and “buying votes.” (See also, Iberdrola offers Grafton voters ‘partnership’ payments)
However, the new proposals, which eliminated four of the 20 wind towers in Windham and offered direct “partnership” payments to registered voters in both towns, actually came from a small group of Windham residents who decided to talk to Iberdrola reps directly when the Select Board had refused.
Windham resident Kathy Scott, attending the informational meeting at Grafton Elementary School on Wednesday night, said her group came together last December after residents felt that their voices were not being listened to by the Windham Select Board. That board has split 2 to 1 against the project.
She said the group then went to the board in April with a petition, bearing 67 signatures, asking them to form a committee to negotiate with Iberdrola over protections from the potential development as well as benefits for the town. In June however, the board sent a letter to Iberdrola asking them to abandon the project.
Group members then told the board that since the it had refused to enter talks with Iberdrola, they would.
Scott said the residents were looking for protections over concerns about roads, decommissioning, stormwater runoff and blasting among others, as well as tax and other benefits and how those would be structured, “especially considering that most of the population is over 55.” Windham is a community of 328 with 17 children in its K through 6 school.
She added, “We wanted to try to help lower taxes and increase the opportunity for younger people to populate the community, to populate the school.”
That opportunity, she said, came in the form of annual payouts to registered voters, which some critics have called “a bribe.” However, Scott said, the idea actually came from her group, based on a partnership with those affected by the Alaska pipeline.
Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Iberdrola, confirmed that his corporation had never proposed such a “registered voter” benefit before and the idea came from community members.
This loose group of residents, she said, believed that the annual tax benefit package Iberdrola would pay would translate into a property tax reduction that would likely benefit second homeowners the most “because they pay the most in taxes, so they’ll get a good bang for their buck …
“We wanted to attract more people to Windham. … We don’t have a general store, we don’t have a post office. What we have is scenery. So we’re hoping if this thing goes through it (the payout) will be a draw for people to come in an settle.”
If the project is OK’d by voters, the payout, she says, will also be available to renters and will be made available to new residents who register to vote and opt into the program. But, she added, she doesn’t expect “lines of cars coming into Windham.”
Burlington attorney Andy Raubvogel, who represents Iberdrola, confirmed that, “The pro-process group … wanted to hire experts to inform them so Iberdrola placed $35,000 with an escrow agent for the sole job of dispensing funds. Iberdrola has no control over the account and it can only be spent on consultants. No individuals can use this.”
The group then used the funds to hire sound and aesthetics specialists as well as attorney Richard Saudek to negotiate with Iberdrola. Before negotiations began – and given the shortened timeframe – the sound and aesthetics specialists primarily reviewed data from Iberdrola to “make sure it was sound and not slanted,” said Scott, adding that they found consistent and conservative procedures with no anomalies.
Saudek has been used by a number of communities to negotiate with large corporations and even spoke before a large audience at a Grafton Select Board meeting in May about what to expect as plans go forward.
Scott said, “Although we like the proposal, it was never solely about winning the vote. It was about giving residents a voice. And we felt that (voice) had been shut down.”
Grafton Select Board member Al Sands, who has long been an advocate of such negotiations and was the person who brought Saudek to Grafton in May, said on Wednesday, “When a group from the public can influence Iberdrola to that degree … to remove four turbines from the project that were a concern to people, I can’t help but wonder if the Select Board in Grafton had been willing to work with Saudek and express concerns, what might have happened” to the Grafton side of the project, including removing turbines.
“But who knows?” he said, “Who knows?”
As for complaints of vote-buying received by state Attorney General’s Office, the Senior Assistant AG Michael Duane said that after research, his office has determined that the partnership offer “does not appear to be a violation of Title 17” of state laws.
Voters from the two towns still must go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8 to vote on the project. Iberdrola has said that should the project be voted down, it will walk away.
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