MONTPELIER – Secretary of State Jim Condos said Thursday that Iberdrola Renewables’ offer to make cash payments to full-time residents of Windham and Grafton who will vote next month on the developer’s wind turbine project was not the Vermont way.
In a letter to Frank Seawright, chairman of the Windham Select Board, Condos said the Iberdrola offer of $1,162 to full-time adult residents of Windham – and $427 to Grafton residents – may not meet the legal definition of a bribe or undue influence, but that it was a dangerous precedent.
“There is what’s legal and there is what’s right,” Condos wrote to Seawright, who had asked the secretary of state for clarification on his view of the Iberdrola offer.
“In a democracy, a ballot item should pass or fail on its own merits and not because of cash incentives,” Condos wrote.
“This is a road we, as Vermonters, do not want to go down, where those with the most money can buy the result they want,” Condos wrote. “This is not education or advocacy or free speech. It is a payment to voters.”
Condos said it was “immediately apparent” to him that Iberdrola had looked at the law and was “pushing the envelope in an attempt to influence the vote.”
He said in a telephone interview he was a supporter of renewable energy and the state’s move to a renewable energy future. “I have no position on this particular project,” he said.
Condos said such payments could lead to a bidding war, where different sides of any topic could offer more money to voters supporting their plan.
He said he would ask the Vermont Legislature to clarify the “undue influence” provision of the law. He said his office had sought a legal opinion from the Vermont attorney general’s office earlier this month, and they concluded that the Iberdrola offer was not a bribe or an example of undue influence.
But he said there was “no clear cut definition of ‘undue influence’ or ‘bribe’ under the law,” he said.
Windham and Grafton residents will vote on the Iberdrola Renewables wind project on Nov. 8. Iberdrola, a Spanish-based energy conglomerate, wants to built what would be the state’s largest commercial wind project called Stiles Brook Project, on a ridgeline between the towns of Windham and Grafton, and on a 5,000-acre private, commercial forest owned by a New Hampshire timber company, Meadowsend Timberlands. It would generate 82.8 megawatts.
Earlier this month, Iberdrola said it was dropping four of the original 28 turbines, but 16 turbines would remain in Windham and eight in Grafton.
At the same time, Iberdrola said it would offer individual payments to all registered voters, although it later changed its offer to all full-time residents, according to Seawright.
Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Iberdrola, said in an email Thursday that Condos’ comments were based on “misinformation.”
“The partnership program is available to all permanent residents, not just registered voters,” Copleman said. “It is our understanding that the secretary was misinformed regarding the eligibility of all permanent residents, not just registered voters and based his response on that misinformation.”
Copleman said that “all permanent residents in the towns” would be eligible for the individual payments, and he said Iberdrola’s property tax payments would reduce everyone’s taxes in both towns.
“Equitable distribution is what local residents have asked us to accomplish,” he said, noting that people with the more expensive homes and more land under property tax benefits would have gained the most.
He pointed to the attorney general’s opinion that the company’s offer “does not violate the ‘undue influence’ provision of election law.”
Seawright, the Windham board chairman, said he was pleased with Condos’ response, but said Iberdrola keeps shifting the landscape, now saying that full-time residents are eligible for the payment, while three weeks ago, the company said it was registered voters.
“They have two versions out. It looks like they made a mistake,” he said. “They’re trying to confuse everybody.”
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, had originally asked Condos for a ruling on the Iberdrola cash offer after receiving questions from town residents. Partridge opposes the Iberdrola project on a variety of issues, including environmental and concerns over the sound coming from the turbines.
“I think they’re actually nice looking,” Partridge said, adding that she wouldn’t be able to see any of the turbines from her sheep farm.
But she said she was against the project nonetheless.
“I have concerns about small towns dealing with large corporations,” she said. “Iberdrola is a development corporation and then they will flip it two years down the road, and we may be dealing with another company. Will they honor the agreement? If they don’t, what’s our recourse?”
Partridge added, “I think there is strong opposition to this project. I wouldn’t be surprised if the vote came down opposing the project.”
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