VERNON -- When it came time to talk taxes with the owners of Vernon's soon-shuttered Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell took the lead.
But some say she shouldn't have.
At a meeting this week, a Vernon resident requested that O'Donnell recuse herself from any future tax negotiations with Entergy because her private business has sold products to Vermont Yankee.
O'Donnell, though, said there is no conflict. On the contrary, she contends her long-term relationship with Entergy administrators as a Selectboard member will benefit Vernon.
"If I thought for one minute that it was a hindrance to this town ... I'd be the first person to step down," O'Donnell said.
She also dismissed the notion that conflict-of-interest allegations are widespread.
"There's not a lot of talk," she said. "There's a handful of people who are talking, and they talk all the time."
With Yankee scheduled to close by the end of next year, the Vernon Selectboard has entered into confidential negotiations with Entergy in an attempt to ease the impact on the town's tax base.
The plant pays about half the town's taxes, and the hope is that Entergy will agree to a plan that gradually decreases the company's contributions in order to give Vernon time to adjust.
O'Donnell talked to Entergy administrators after the company announced the pending shutdown in August. And the Selectboard recently held a negotiating session with the company.
Resident David Webb argues that O'Donnell should not participate in those talks. On Monday, Webb asked O'Donnell whether the Fort Bridgman Road company that she and her husband own has ever done business with Vermont Yankee.
O'Donnell said her business, which provides printing, "marketing solutions" and other services, has had contracts with the plant. Later, she clarified that she had sold promotional items to employees there.
Webb produced two conflict-of-interest documents including Vernon's policy, which reads:
"When a potential conflict of interest arises during a bid process, and/or a subject of potential conflict, in which an elected official or appointed individual has a direct or indirect financial interest, or any direct/indirect personal interest whether from blood or marriage, relationship or close business or political association, the individual will remove himself/herself from the meeting while the matter is discussed or acted upon."
Webb said he believes O'Donnell is "in conflict" with that policy.
"I want to ask you to recuse yourself from any sort of negotiations with Vermont Yankee," he said. "I think it's a bit prideful on your end to think that there's no one else in this town who can negotiate with Vermont Yankee but you."
That brought a response from Selectboard member Jeff Dunklee, who said other members of the board have participated in the talks. And O'Donnell said the town's listers and attorney also will participate.
"Nothing will be signed unless everybody is in agreement," she said. "And I think people around this table can tell you that I certainly didn't cut any slack to the Entergy folks when they were here for negotiations."
O'Donnell also argues that, whatever her past business relationships with Vermont Yankee, they have no relevance to the tax talks at hand.
"If anybody's gotten the memo: Vermont Yankee's closing. So I have nothing to gain in a negotiation with Vermont Yankee," she said.
"I do have a lot to gain in a negotiation on taxes," O'Donnell added. "Because I'm a resident of this town, too. And whatever happens with the taxes in this town, I am going to be responsible for also."
Webb said there have been rumors that O'Donnell is in talks to work for Entergy. She sharply denied that.
"There are a lot of rumors going around, David. There's always been a lot of rumors going on. Because there are some people who have nothing to do with their time but cause problems," O'Donnell said.
"My husband and I have never been offered a job by Vermont Yankee," she said. "We live in this town, we pay taxes in this town. What happens to the future of this town is just as important to us as it is to any other member of this town."
O'Donnell also said her participation in the tax discussions had been cleared by the town attorney.
The discussion ended shortly thereafter. But it did not change Webb's opinion.
"I think she's an honest individual," he said outside the Selectboard meeting room. "That's not the point. A conflict of interest is a conflict of interest."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.