Stiles Brook payments worry secretary of state
WINDHAM >> Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos says he's "greatly concerned" about a turbine developer's monetary offer to voters during meetings held earlier this month in Windham and Grafton.
Though the state attorney general's office has said Iberdrola Renewables' proposed "direct partnership payments" don't violate election law, Condos asserts that the developer is "pushing the envelope in an attempt to influence the vote."
Voters in both towns are scheduled to weigh in on Iberdrola's controversial Stiles Brook Wind Project on Nov. 8. The developer has promised that, if the project is built, each Windham resident could get a minimum of $1,162 annually, and each Grafton resident would receive at least $428 annually.
"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," Condos wrote in an email sent Thursday to Windham's Select Board chairman. "This is not education or advocacy or free speech. It is a payment to voters."
Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman on Friday said the company has clarified its financial offer to encompass "all permanent residents, not just registered voters."
He also argued that, while tax revenues from the Stiles Brook development are expected to result in lower tax rates for residents, the partnership payments are another, more equitable way of distributing the wind project's financial benefits.
"While delivering direct benefits to those with more expensive homes or more land, (a property tax cut) does not equitably distribute the project benefits to all permanent residents," Copleman said. "And that equitable distribution is what local residents have asked us to accomplish."
Iberdrola is proposing to build 24 turbines amid the 5,000 acre Stiles Brook Forest, owned by New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd. It would be Vermont's largest wind power site, capable of generating 82.8 megawatts of renewable energy.
Stiles Brook has spurred protest among those who are concerned about possible negative impacts on property values, aesthetics, the environment and human health. Two opposition organizations – Friends of Windham and Grafton Woodlands Group – have formed, and a majority of the two towns' Select Boards currently are comprised of critics of the project.
Both Iberdrola and Meadowsend have touted the project's environmental and economic benefits. The developer has accused opponents of spreading false information.
Though not legally obligated to receive approval from the towns, Iberdrola has said it will abide by the results of the Nov. 8 vote.
About a month before that balloting, the company modified its Stiles Brook proposal, downsizing from 28 to 24 turbines and raising the annual financial-benefits package for the towns from $1 million to $1.5 million.
The financial package includes "partnership payments" totaling $565,000 annually to residents of Windham and Grafton. In handouts distributed at public meetings earlier this month, Iberdrola described these as "direct partnership payments to registered voters to offset their own expenses, such as education taxes and energy bills."
Iberdrola has said such benefits are common at its energy projects. But Stiles Brook opponents cried foul, equating the partnership payments to a bribe.
The Vermont attorney general's office reviewed the issue and decided that the payment offer did not violate state election law. A key reason, Senior Assistant Attorney General Michael Duane said, was that the payments would be available to all voters regardless of their stance on the wind project – and regardless of whether they had voted on the matter at all.
Condos – whose office oversees elections – said he and his staff "respect and appreciate the (attorney general's) position and will follow their guidance." In responding to a query from Windham Select Board Chairman Frank Seawright, Condos also makes clear that he supports renewable energy and has "no position on this particular project."
What rankles Condos, however, is that Iberdrola's initial handouts targeted registered voters for partnership payments if the Stiles Brook project goes through.
"Regardless of whether the partnership payments are deemed legal, I remain greatly concerned about where this may lead if we start down this road," Condos wrote. "In a democracy, a ballot item should pass or fail on its own merits and not because of cash incentives."
He worries that such payment offers "could conceivably invite a bidding war between competing 'partnerships' on every controversial ballot item."
"There is what's legal and there is what's right, and those are not always the same thing," Condos wrote.
Iberdrola has tweaked the wording of its offer. Copleman sent VTDigger.org examples of recent fliers that say partnership payments would be available to "each full-time adult resident" and "every full-time (Windham and Grafton) resident" – though the latter document still calculates individual payments "based on the number of registered voters in each respective town."
Copleman also said the company used the term "permanent adult residents" at public meetings in Windham and Grafton earlier this month – in contrast to the literature handed out those nights.
"The intent from the beginning was to include all permanent adult residents in the partnership program," Copleman said.
In response, Condos said he probably wouldn't have taken a position on money offered only to full-time residents. But he noted that he was reacting to Iberdrola's original offer to voters, given his office's election responsibilities.
He also pledged to ask the Legislature during the upcoming session to clarify the "undue influence" provision of state election law because of the Stiles Brook controversy. "Words matter," Condos said. "When we're looking at it from a legal standpoint, what is the state's definition of 'undue influence'?"
State Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia/Orange, also is calling for legislative action. He thinks more legal clarity is necessary on the concept of undue influence, and he's also in favor of boosting penalties for violating the law.
Currently, those who are found guilty of "offenses against the purity of elections" face a maximum $200 fine.
Benning is a vocal critic of wind turbines. But he said his push for tweaking the election law "really doesn't have anything to do, in my eyes, with wind towers. This has everything to do with the purity and integrity of Vermont's electoral process."
State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, also says legislative action is needed in regards to election law, though she's not sure of the mechanics of it. "It's not my area of expertise, but I just think it makes sense to clarify it," said Partridge, who chairs the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee.
Partridge, who represents both of the towns that may host Stiles Brook turbines, said she is opposed to the project due to concerns about environmental and health impacts and the turbines' proximity to homes.
"I was willing to take a look at it, but the more I learned the more really grave concerns I had," Partridge said.
Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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