November 2, 2016

Windham clerk accused of swaying wind vote

Susan Smallheer | Rutland Herald | November 2, 2016 |

WINDHAM – Hard feelings are blowing in the wind.

A Windham resident and member of the town’s Board of Civil Authority filed a complaint with the secretary of state’s office Tuesday, claiming the Windham town clerk was illegally influencing next week’s high-stakes and controversial vote on the proposed Stiles Brook Forest wind project,

Michael Simonds sent the letter to Secretary of State Jim Condos, asking him to investigate Town Clerk Jo-Jo Chlebogiannis, saying she was also illegally registering second-home owners as voters.

“That’s a wonderful fairy tale of a story,” Chlebogiannis said in an interview at her office.

She said the wind debate was creating bad feelings all over the town.

Chlebogiannis and Simonds are on opposite sides of the wind debate in Windham, which will culminate next week with town-wide votes in Windham and Grafton on the Iberdrola Renewables’ project. Iberdrola has said it will respect the wishes of the two towns’ registered voters.

Simonds, who couldn’t be reached Tuesday afternoon for questions about his letter, is one of five members of the tiny town’s Board of Civil Authority, Chlebogiannis said, and thus is privy to every change of the voter check list. The town has 309 voters on the checklist, she said.

She said the BCA would meet Thursday to go over 17 challenges to the voter checklist in preparation for next Tuesday’s vote. She said pro-wind and anti-wind people’s right to vote is being challenged.

In several cases, she said, the parents of adult children are trying to keep their children on the Windham checklist, when they live elsewhere.

Will Senning, director of elections for the Vermont secretary of state’s office, said neither he nor Condos had the power to investigate Simonds’ complaints. He said Condos would issue a public statement on Simonds’ allegations today.

But Senning said any voters who want to challenge a vote should file a complaint with the state’s attorney by way of Superior Court. After the vote, any registered voter can file a challenge within 15 days in Superior Court.

Chlebogiannis, who was elected town clerk at town meeting in March, said she has made no secret that she is now opposed to the Iberdrola project, after strongly supporting it. She disputed Simonds’ criticism, saying pro and con information about the proposed 84-megawatt project was posted in the town clerk’s office.

Simonds had complained about a small model of a wind turbine, which stands next to a model of the Windham Meeting House, which he said was misleading because there is no turbine proposed near the church.

“It is very clear to anyone who enters the town office how she thinks they should vote, and that kind of undue influence from a town representative in a town office seems at best extremely inappropriate, if not a violation of Vermont’s election laws,” Simonds wrote to Condos.

Simonds also said Chlebogiannis allowed people to register to vote who were not residents of the town “and have intention of being so, in order to sway the outcome on the Stiles Brook question.”

Senning said all materials having to do with the Iberdrola project should be banned from the town clerk’s office now, since it is functioning as a polling place as people are casting absentee ballots.

Chlebogiannis said she has never made her stand on the wind project a secret, but she said in the town clerk’s office she is completely neutral. Outside the office, she said, she is not.

Chlebogiannis said she changed her longtime stand in favor of wind about a year ago after an Iberdrola public meeting in Windham.

She said she had been in constant contact with Senning about the various problems that have cropped up related to the Iberdrola vote. She said she had talked with Condos last week, since she had questioned the legality of the offer by Iberdrola to pay each Windham resident $1,400, in addition to property taxes to the town, if the project is approved.

Condos said last week the Iberdrola offer had been ruled legal by the Vermont attorney general’s office, but he called the cash offer a dangerous precedent and he would ask the Legislature in 2017 to clarify the law on undue influence.

“It’s become quite contentious,” Chlebogiannis said.

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