On Nov. 8 we will learn whether voters can be bought and whether Iberdrola Renewables will change how renewable energy developers must market their large-scale proposals in Vermont.
Voters in Windham and Grafton will vote on the Stiles Brook Wind Project, the 24-turbine development backed by Iberdrola, the multi-national electric utility company headquartered in Spain. But the vote isn’t just about wind turbines on a ridgeline, it’s about a company using the power of its purse to overcome objections. In Windham, residents are being promised $1,162 annually, and in Grafton, residents are being promised almost $500 annually – if the vote passes and the company can install its wind towers.
That was not the way the project began. When Iberdrola first proposed the wind-power project, there were the obvious benefits the towns would accrue through property tax payments, etc. But that was it.
Things changed when the Windham Foundation, and various local officials expressed their opposition to the project, saying the damage to the ridgeline, and the project’s minimal value to the state’s renewable energy goals were not worth the money coming into the towns’ coffers.
Iberdrola had always said it would abide by whatever the public decided on the Nov. 8 vote. But when it became a serious likelihood that the voters might oppose the project, Iberdrola changed tactics. It served notice to the voters that there would be a special little something in their Christmas stockings if the company’s wind project were approved.
This got the attention of folks not only in Windham and Grafton, but throughout Vermont. Paying people to vote a particular way has that affect.
This got the attention of the Attorney General’s office, but it was not deemed a bribe because the money goes to all registered voters in the town, not just those who supported it.
But Secretary of State Jim Condon filled the political void in a way that resonated. In an email to the Windham Selectboard he 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. This is not education or advocacy or free speech. It is a payment to voters.”
Mr. Condos is also interested in asking for clarification from the Legislature as to what constitutes “undue influence” under the state’s election law. If Iberdrola’s check-writing promise to all voters in Windham and Grafton is allowable, then what does this unleash? How does the state maintain the integrity of its voting process?
Equally interesting is how Iberdrola’s proposal will affect fellow renewable energy developers. Vermont’s a small state and word of easy money spreads quickly. When a developer first meets with local authorities about a proposed wind or solar project is there now the expectation of “what’s in it for us?”
And if it is not addressed in the first moments, aren’t the residents obliged to ask their local selectboards for the same payoffs the residents of Windham and Grafton are being promised?
And if this becomes the preferred course of business, then what binds the practice to renewables?
In literature sent out by Iberdrola the proposed payments were described as payments “…to registered voters to offset their own expenses, such as education taxes and energy bills.” In many parts of Vermont, that is an offer many would not refuse. Offer the average Vermonter an extra thousand dollars each year [if they vote the right way] and the potential affect on the electoral outcomes is obvious.
We would hope the people of Grafton and Windham would tell the company they can’t be bought. But there is a bigger issue here, and it’s one the Legislature needs to consider when the session convenes in January. If it’s not bribery, it’s close enough to spur legislative concern.
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