Next Tuesday’s vote in Windham on a proposed wind project has become so controversial that the town plans to videotape the whole process – from voter check-in to ballot counting – in hopes of quelling concerns about fairness.
“I’m not taking any risk,” said Windham Town Clerk Jo-Jo Chlebogiannis. “I’m being criticized for things that aren’t actually occurring.”
Windham and Grafton are both slated to vote Tuesday on the proposed 24-turbine Stiles Brook wind project, which would construct 16 turbines in Windham and eight in Grafton.
Project developer Iberdrola has said it will follow the towns’ wishes on the project, but some residents are worried that the company is laying the groundwork for declaring the vote unjust.
New accusations arise almost daily from those for and against the project.
Iberdrola is offering local residents a financial incentive to host the turbines. Opponents are accusing the company of trying to buy votes. Iberdrola argues that the offer was in response to what residents said they wanted. The state Attorney General’s Office has ruled that the offer is legal.
If the towns approve the project, every full-time adult Windham resident would receive $1,162 a year and every full-time adult Grafton resident would receive $428, Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman said. Iberdrola added the financial incentive package this fall while also reducing the size of the project from 28 to 24 turbines.
Other controversies have surfaced.
This week, Windham resident Michael Simonds wrote to Secretary of State Jim Condos questioning whether Chlebogiannis, who opposes the project, could be trusted to oversee the vote as the town clerk.
“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. “Ms. Chlebogiannis is failing her duty as a Town Clerk to perform town business without personal objectives, and as the head election official, she is not maintaining the purity of an important election.”
Chlebogiannis said in an interview that the letter contained “nothing but untruths.” Simonds did not respond to a request for comment.
Condos responded to Simonds that he can – and has – advised Chlebogiannis about election procedure, but has no authority over the clerk, who is elected by the local voters. Condos’ office did resolve some of the issues Simonds raised.
Simonds complained anti-wind material was on display in the town clerk’s office. That information has been removed, as has pro-wind information that was also on display, Chlebogiannis said. She said state elections director Will Senning clarified for her that because the town clerk’s office is the polling place for early voting, no information regarding a ballot item can be on display.
But Chlebogiannis said the allegation that she was trying to influence the vote is unjust. Some of the materials in question predated her March election as town clerk, she said.
Wind project supporters also accused Chlebogiannis of not allowing two local residents to register to vote this week as the voter registration deadline neared. She said that when local resident Alan Partridge brought in voter registration forms for two other residents, including photocopies of their driver’s licenses for identification, she told Partridge she didn’t think photocopies would suffice.
But Chlebogiannis said she called Senning to check the rules and he told her the information provided was sufficient, so she then registered the two voters. “I apologized,” she said. “I did not have any intention of not registering anyone.”
Simonds also accused Chlebogiannis of registering out-of-staters who own vacation homes in town. “I believe that Ms. Chlebogiannis may have allowed some of them to register to vote as residents of Windham, even though they appear to work outside the state, have out-of-state license plates and have never voted in Vermont before,” he wrote.
It’s not true, Chlebogiannis said. “Everybody I have registered to vote has had a Vermont license,” she said.
The tensions prompted 10 members of the town’s Board of Civil Authority to meet Thursday to go over ground rules for the voting and to examine 15 contested voter registrations. They also decided to have the voting videotaped, Chlebogiannis said. Taping will cost the town $400, she said.
The board decided against disallowing the 15 contested registrations from people who board members believe no longer live in town, she said. When those people vote, they will have to sign an oath affirming their residency, she said.
Condos told Simonds in his response that clerks are not allowed to ask those registering to vote for more information confirming their eligibility than state law requires. A clerk refers any questionable registrations to the Board of Civil Authority, which decides on a voter’s application, he said.
Chlebogiannis alleged that all the questioning comes down to Iberdrola and the project’s supporters “looking for an excuse to not validate the vote. If they need to use me as a scapegoat, they can.”
Copleman said Iberdrola is committed to “the outcome of a fair and equitable vote.” When asked what might constitute an unfair or inequitable outcome, he hedged. “I wouldn’t want to speculate,” he said. “It’s critical that the process is lawful and fair.”
There have been no similar accusations about voter registration in Grafton, Grafton Town Clerk Kim Record said.
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