Saint Albans Messenger; August 11, 2016
‘Cure’ for alleged Open Meeting violations forthcoming
By TOM BENTON
Messenger Staff Writer
SWANTON — The Planning Commission finalized their written response to allegations that private communications between commissioners violated Vermont’s Open Meeting Law during a special meeting Wednesday evening.
The commission’s chair, Jim Hubbard, also clarified that the commission will disregard all anti-wind testimony and “start from square one” in creating a municipal energy plan that will “put Swanton in the best place in the future.” The commission went into executive session soon after the meeting began to confer with the town’s lawyer, Burlington-based attorney Ed Adrian. The commission began formulating a response with Adrian during a previous special meeting on Aug. 3.
These private deliberations are allowed under Vermont’s Open Meeting Law, which stipulates members of a governing body may enter executive session to consider “arbitration, mediation, grievances, civil actions or prosecutions by the state, where premature general public knowledge would clearly place the state, municipality, other public body or person involved at a substantial disadvantage.”
Three of the commissioners have been accused of violating the Open Meeting Law by privately deliberating, via email, proposed changes to the municipal energy plan, which the commission has been developing. The law prohibits a majority of any governing body from discussing municipal matters outside a properly warned meeting.
In this case, three of the five commissioners did so, as evidenced by email communications obtained via an open records request filed by Anthony Iarrapino. Iarrapino serves as attorney for the Swanton Wind Project. The couple behind the project, Travis and Ashley Belisle, believe town officials have made unfair, and now illicit, efforts to prevent the project’s development.
The emails in question also revealed that one of the commissioners, Sara Luneau-Swan, had privately communicated with noted industrial wind opponents. At one point in the emails, Luneau-Swan noted that the Belisles planned to attend a forthcoming planning commission meeting, writing “and we don’t want to have to make changes or concede to any of their requests.”
The Open Meeting Law requires a public acknowledgement — or denial — of the alleged violations within seven days after a grievance is filed. Hubbard acknowledged the grievance during the commission’s July 20 meeting. He apologized to the Belisles, clarified his innocence — Hubbard was not involved in the email chain in question — and insisted no wrongdoing had taken place, even after one of the commissioners involved, Ed Daniel, acknowledged his own mistake.
Iarrapino sent Adrian a “cure” proposal — a means of legal amends, as mandated by the law — on behalf of the Belisles.
The proposal, dated Aug. 2, asks that the planning commission acknowledge their private communications were “improper” according to the Open Meeting Law. It also asks that the town offer newly appointed planning commission members training on compliance with the law, and that Luneau-Swan be removed from further deliberations on the municipal energy plan, but not that she step down altogether.
The proposal praises the commission’s postponement of the energy plan, which they had hoped to finalize during their July 20 meeting, as well as their subsequent scheduling of an Aug. 17 “working session,” during which wind proponents may provide evidence toward balanced wind stipulations in the municipal plan.
Though the commission’s response to the proposal could not be disclosed until formally submitted by Adrian, the commission’s behavior has clearly changed. Meeting minutes, which might once have been a week or more in the making, are now distributed within days of the gatherings. Town Administrator David Jescavage has even distributed copies of the relevant emails to anyone who requests them.
But Hubbard has suffered the most noticeable change. His characteristically warm and boisterous behavior was replaced at last night’s meeting by a quiet stillness.
During last night’s meeting, Republican Representative Marianna Gamache, who helped craft “refinements” to the municipal energy plan prior to the violation allegations, asked what had happened to those refinements.
“We have not worked on your particular proposal whatsoever,” Hubbard told her.
When Gamache attempted to ask for clarification, Hubbard interrupted, “We are starting over from square one. We will use no language presented whatsoever. What we have is what was in our town plan a year ago.”
Hubbard’s one moment of energy came when he moved that the meeting be adjourned.