Allegations fly in New Haven selectboard race
NEW HAVEN — The New Haven election race heated up over the weekend with an online exchange centered around selectboard Chair Kathy Barrett, who is running for re-election. At the center of the flare-up is perhaps the largest issue looming before New Haven: Whether the town should say yea or nay to the proposed electric converter station that would be built in town as part of the Vermont Green Line.
VGL is a project of Anbaric Transmission and National Grid to deliver renewable energy from northern New York to southern New England via a high-voltage power line that would run through New Haven.
Although the proposed converter station itself is not on the ballot, it’s in large part responsible for the five-person competition for two selectboard seats on Town Meeting Day. Planning Commission member Dan Monger is running against Barrett for her three-year seat. Bridget Kipp and John Roleau are running against incumbent Carole Hall for her two-year seat.
In a Feb. 26 posting on the online bulletin board Front Porch Forum, former selectboard member Roger Boise wrote, “I am concerned about two of the candidates for the selectboard position. They need to keep an open mind and not have an agenda; they are basically running to keep the Anbaric line out of the town.”
Boise did not name which two candidates he meant, but recommended “voting for Kathy Barrett and John Roleau” because “they do not have an agenda.”
Selectman Doug Tolles, who is not up for re-election, then responded to Boise’s post and questioned Boise’s characterization of Barrett as open-minded. Tolles wrote: “What Roger failed to mention is that Ms. Barrett secretly met with representatives of Anbaric, and did not tell anyone — especially the other selectboard members — about it for five months. Those five months were crucial time lost — time that New Haven residents and officials could have used to become better informed and knowledgeable about this $1.5 billion massive project. Now the selectboard is scrambling as well as it can to catch up.”
Barrett now makes no secret that she met with Anbaric late in May. In fact, anyone consulting the New Haven selectboard minutes can see that this information opened the very first public meeting with Anbaric Transmission, which took place on Aug. 24 at a joint meeting of the selectboard and the planning commission. But in an interview on Monday Barrent took issue with Tolles’s characterization of her as not open-minded and his accusation that her withholding information from the town has put it at a disadvantage in its negotiations over the proposed Vermont Green Line.
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN
According to Barrett, Alex MacLean, a consultant for Anbaric, emailed her on May 20, asking if “we can find a time to sit down and introduce you to the project.” The email said that former selectboard member Charlie Roy had recommended that MacLean and Anbaric project manager Bryan Sanderson contact Barrett. Barrett then met with Maclean and Sanderson on May 29, together with New Haven Zoning Administrator Dave Wetmore, at the New Haven town office, Barrett said.
Barrett said that she made it clear at the meeting that she was there to listen only but she and Wetmore both agreed to Anbaric’s request that they keep silent about the meeting until Anbaric was clearer about its proposal and ready to approach the town.
When asked why on Monday she had agreed to such a request, Barrett explained, “Because when they were ready, they were going to bring it. There was so little information — National Grid wasn’t even involved at that point; they didn’t have them as an investor. It was in such a preliminary state that I couldn’t see, since they asked me not to, saying anything. I didn’t feel a responsibility to say, ‘Hey there’s something going on, but we don’t know what it is.’ They were perfectly willing to come to a selectboard meeting and explain the project, which they did in August once they had enough information.”
Zoning Administrator Wetmore, also present at the meeting, could not be reached for comment on Monday.
While Tolles’s FPF post asserts that Barrett withheld information for five months, only two to three months elapsed before Barrett brought the matter to the selectboard’s attention. However, Barrett could not clarify and the public record is unclear as to whether she first brought the Anbaric proposal to the selectboard’s attention at the board’s July 21 meeting or at the Aug. 11 meeting.
The July 21 selectboard minutes mention a “joint meeting with the Planning Commission on Monday, August 24, 2015, at 7:00 p.m.” — which is the joint meeting at which Anbaric first presented its proposed VGL converter station to New Haven — but Barrett said she doesn’t remember if she specifically brought up Anbaric Transmission’s proposed converter station at that time. Only the joint meeting, but not Anbaric itself, is mentioned in the July 21 minutes. Clerk of the board Pam Kingman could not be reached for comment.
The first mention in the public record is in the Aug. 11 minutes: “Anbaric project — This proposed project will bring direct current cable from upstate New York, under Lake Champlain to the VELCO substation in new Haven. There will be a joint meeting with the Planning Commission and selectboard on Monday, August 24, 2015, at 7:00 p.m.”
What is clear is that Anbaric Transmission made its first public presentation to the selectboard Aug. 24. And that in October, when Anbaric representatives contacted Barrett about beginning the negotiation process, she then took that communication to the selectboard. The selectboard then appointed Carole Hall and Steve Dupoise as point persons in the VGL negotiations at its Nov. 9 meeting. Shortly thereafter the selectboard hired Richard Saudek, an attorney with a track record of winning court cases against utilities and one experienced in helping towns negotiate successfully with energy-related entities. Saudek won what’s been described as a “David vs. Goliath” fight for the town of Rockingham against TransCanada over how taxes were to be assessed at the Bellows Falls hydroelectric station. And he has successfully represented towns negotiating with Anbaric competitor TDI over TDI’s similar project bringing renewable power under Lake Champlain and inland to a converter station at Ludlow.
TRANSPARENCY AND VERMONT TOWN GOVERNMENT
Vermont Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters said that while there’s nothing illegal in a selectboard member meeting with an outside entity and then withholding that information over a number of weeks or months, the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office believes it’s best for public officials to err on the side of transparency as a matter of maintaining trust with the public and with one’s fellow officials.
“There are many situations where individual members of the board will speak to their constituents or to folks who are not constituents about matters affecting their town in their role as selectboard members,” Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters said in an interview on Monday. “But generally that information gets brought back to the board and discussed at the next open meeting.”
In a situation such as being approached by an outside entity for a one-on-one conversation, Winters said that it would be preferable for a selectboard member to
• Seek prior authorization for the meeting.
• Speak as soon as possible to fellow board members.
• Not agree to withhold information from fellow board members.
“Secretary Condos does his transparency tour and he’s always talking about how it’s better to err on the side of transparency to engender trust with the people you represent and that most everything that the town does is of public record and should be done in to open. So we would always err on the side of openness,” Winters said.
FURTHER ‘MIDNIGHT’ ALLEGATIONS
In an email sent to New Haven voters late on Sunday night, Feb. 28,Tolles urged residents to vote for Dan Monger and identified Barrett as New Haven’s “biggest problem.” The email was sent a day and a half before voting for New Haven selectboard began and too late for its allegations to be reviewed in the print edition of the Independent.
In the email, which was forwarded to others in New Haven and which the Independent has seen, Tolles accused Barrett of allegedly trying to negotiate one-sidedly with Casella, meeting secretly with solar developer Rod Viens, chairing meetings that were illegally posted and “non-posted,” and with “cronyism” in voting against a change in the town employee benefits plan.
Barrett forcefully rejected each of these allegations as “bogus” and as outright distortions of the truth.
“It’s extremely disappointing that politics on the town level have sunk to the level of politics on the national level,” said Barrett. “I don’t think mud slinging is appropriate in this kind of environment. We all live in the same community and this is just inappropriate. I stand by my principles and if you ask me not to say something I won’t say it I won’t repeat it. I don’t like half-truths. And I think we all need to work together.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].