Sands may have violated Grafton Code of Conduct in meeting Iberdrola

By Cynthia Prairie
©2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Grafton Select Board chair Al Sands may have violated the town’s two-year-old Code of Ethics by meeting with representatives of international wind industry company Iberdrola Renewables.

That possibility was brought up on Thursday, May 26, at Town Hall, during a special Select Board meeting held  for the purpose of either replacing former Select Board member Gus Plummer or possibly setting a date for a townwide election.

David Acker asks the board for more transparency in town government. Photos by Cynthia Prairie.

David Acker asks the board for more transparency in town government. Photos by Cynthia Prairie.

The Select Board did set a tentative date of Tuesday, July 12 for a special election to replace Plummer, who resigned his seat after he received an anonymous threat in a note.* Town Clerk Kim Record confirmed on Tuesday, May 31, that the vote will take place at Town Hall, 117 Main St., on Tuesday, July 12.

But during the public comment portion of last Thursday’s special Select Board meeting, four residents once again addressed the need for government transparency and concerns over board chair Sands’ recent meeting with Iberdrola Renewables, which is hoping to erect eight 500-foot wind turbines in Grafton and 20 in Windham.

Although The Chester Telegraph reported earlier this week that state law may not apply to certain situations of public officials meeting in private with a party that will potentially do business in the town, David Muelrath read from the Town of Grafton Code of Conduct, a 10-page document adopted by the Select Board in October of 2014. It was signed by Skip Lisle, Joseph Plummer, Noralee Hall, Peter Jeziorski and Sam Battaglino.

You can read the entire code here.

He pointed to Section 4, covering Unilateral Communications by members of a public body:

In any matter before a Public Body, a member should not communicate with or accept a communication from a person the Public Body has reasonable grounds for believing is a party to the matter outside of a public hearing. The presiding officer of the Public Body may engage in such communication, if and only if, there is notice and opportunity to participate given to all parties in accord with 24 V.S.A.§ 1207 (a). A member should disclose any such communication at an open meeting of the Public Body prior to any consideration on the matter, and the member should recuse himself or herself, if appropriate. A “party” as used in this paragraph means a person who:

A. Holds an interest or has an agreement to acquire an interest in a business entity or the property of a business entity which desires to enter into any agreement with the Town, where the Town’s entering into the agreement depends upon the official action of the Public Body.

“This is pretty clear that we have a violation here,” said Muelrath.

The violation is possible because, although the voters will decide whether to accept the Iberdrola contract, town government – in effect the Select Board – could have contractual obligations with the company covering such areas as construction routes, road and infrastructure use and repair, noise levels, assessments for tax purposes, turbine and site maintenance and decommissioning.

Al Sands stands as he addresses the audience as Town Administrator Emily Huff takes notes.

Al Sands stands as he addresses the audience as Town Administrator Emily Huff takes notes.

Sands as an elected official met with representatives of Iberdrola on Tuesday, May 17. Although other members of the community were present, that portion of the Code of Conduct only covers members of public bodies such as the select board.

During Thursday’s meeting, Sands, responding to a question from the audience, said that, “I was aware of the Code of Conduct, aware before the (Iberdrola) meeting.”

Last Friday, The Telegraph provided Sands with a copy of the code, portions of which he said he had not seen before. “The original document was Conflict of Interest, done when I was on the board (in 2012). The Unilateral Communications was done by the 2014 board,” he said.

Ron Pilette, who has been on the board for more than a year, said he had received a copy of the code “early on” in his term and remaining board member Skip Lisle is one of the original signers of the code.

Asked his reaction to the Unilateral Communications section, Sands said it was the first time he had seen it. He added, “My feeling is the issue boils down to are we negotiating with them. I’ll have to read it again, but I can see where people would raise that issue.

“I don’t think I have done something wrong. But when I read that, I can see why people think that. But I didn’t negotiate, I didn’t accept any money, I didn’t make any promises. I’ve told Iberdrola that I haven’t made up my mind. Whatever happens, something will come from whatever a lawyer that we hire agrees to with Iberdrola … if the (town) vote is for Iberdrola (we need to get) the best possible outcome for the town.”

Asked how many times he has met with Iberdrola, Sands said, “Since (his election in) March, probably twice. In between board terms, I met with them as well.”

He also said that, “No, I will not be meeting with Iberdrola any more. But I have to read it (the Code of Conduct) more.”

On Tuesday, May 31, Sands told The Telegraph  that he went to Town Offices earlier in the day. The office was closed over the long Memorial Day weekend.  “I just looked at my file and there is signed copy. I do not remember signing it. It is very odd how blurry it is. Don’t know what to make of it. It is certainly not an original.”

Asked what could happen next, Sands said, “I guess it’s up to the Select Board. If they want to call an executive session and prosecute me or whatever, it is up to the board.”

When asked if she was going to file a complaint against Sands, Liisa Kissel, an anti-wind advocate, would only say, “We are reviewing our options at this point.” “We,” she added are “a group of concerned citizens.”

Sections 7 to 12 of the Code of Ethics outlines the procedure for filing a complaint, establishing a board of ethics, which is led by the Select Board, acting on a complaint and issuing remedies.

Candidates sought for July election

As for the elections to replace Gus Plummer, Town Clerk Kim Record said petitions from candidates wishing to fill the seat will need to be submitted to Town Hall by 4 p.m. Monday, June 6. They must contain five valid signatures of voters in the town of Grafton.

Jack Bryar, standing, offers to become interim Select Board member until the election.

Jack Bryar, standing, offers to become interim Select Board member until the election.

The election was called for at a special meeting of the Select Board Thursday night, which was held after another meeting failed to materialize because it wasn’t warned properly. Grafton resident Don Dougall had gathered 31 valid signatures, more than necessary, to bring about election, and presented it to the assistant town clerk for validation earlier Thursday.

Sands then asked the audience of about 35 if anyone was interested in filling the seat for the six or so weeks until the election.

Jack Bryar, who sits on the Bellows Fall Union school board, stood to express his interest, saying that he wanted to be a neutral party among wind farm advocates and opponents. “There is going to be a vote on the (proposed 28-turbine Iberdrola) wind farm. Whatever happens, there will be suits from either side. There’s no win-win. All I’m offering to do is to be a neutral party,” he told the audience. The remaining four members of the board are divided between anti-wind (Skip Lisle and Ron Pilette) and “pro-process” (Al Sands and Cynthia Gibbs).

He added, “For the next few weeks, I’ll do everything I can to build a little trust, not because I have an agenda. I’m just trying to do the best for everybody.”

When the vote was called, Sands and Gibbs voted for Bryar; Lisle and Pilette voted against. Bryar responded, “That was my fear.”

On Friday, Dougall said he began the petition because, “I fully expected the result that transpired (Thursday night), that the board would split 2 to 2 and nothing would be resolved. We should start right away for the election. It has to warned and it takes a while to get things started.” As of Tuesday afternoon, Dougall was the only person to turn in a petition for election.

In other action, the board also voted to make Lisle vice chair, taking over for Sands, who as vice chair took over Plummer’s chairmanship duties when he resigned. And it voted to put Pilette on the personnel committee, another position that Plummer had held.

*According to Vermont State Police, the case was closed after they tried and failed to speak with Plummer.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Jacqueline Backs says:

    Though I have not talked to Al Sands since the two most recent SB meetings, I have watched FactTV.

    I recently received and read my issue of The Grafton News and I also try to stay updated through The Chester Telegraph. I know Al doesn’t need me to defend him to the townspeople, but I’d like to say a few things on his behalf.

    I’ve known Al Sands for over 40 years. I have always known I can count on the truth from Al. (Sometimes a bit painfully honest, but that’s not a bad thing.) His integrity and character are beyond reproach. To presume (as some citizens apparently have according to Sam Battaglino’s letter to the editor in the recent Grafton News) that Al was doing something underhanded by attending a meeting with Iberdrola and Meadowsend personnel and others, is just that, a presumption.

    Mr. Battaglino, of course, he admitted he attended the meeting … he did … yet you presume there was something nefarious at play here. Why? If Al Sands was approached and asked about it with respect instead of the way it played out, there would be no need for you to surmise that “This raises questions about transparency and ‘neutrality’ on the proposed wind project.”

    Al stated in his letter to the editor of The Grafton News what my own thoughts are in reference to the recent SB meetings. As for Mr. Battaglino’s letter to the editor of The Grafton News, I’m sure many readers of this publication are familiar with terms such as “casting aspersions” and the psychological term “projection” and let’s not forget “the end justifies the means.” I have not personally met Mr. Battaglino, but now when I see or hear his name … these terms come mind.

  2. Anna Vesely Pilette says:

    We have tough, angry, and divided times upon us in Windham and Grafton, brought to us by Iberdrola Renewables and Meadowsend Timberlands’s proposal to build Vermont’s largest industrial wind facility here. The project is also closer to more homes, by a long shot, than any other project in Vermont. It’s a big deal, so it makes sense there are big reactions, both for and against.

    It is only right and just that those who think the project is a bad idea oppose it — that’s what democracy is all about. So, how do we get through our strong disagreements? Part of having respect for each other means 1) sticking to the issues, and staying away from name-calling and speculation about people’s motives and personalities; and 2) for citizens it means satisfying themselves as to the facts, and for town officials it means following due process, exercising due diligence, and abiding by the Town’s Code of Conduct. That’s what being pro-process means.

  3. Ron says:

    To all of you upset with the wind turbines. Gov. Peter Shumlin ran on an alternative energy platform: solar, wind and biomass.

    If you voted for him, you shouldn’t be surprised or complain about wind turbines. It’s your fault if you voted for him.

  4. David says:

    Pro process apparently means it is OK to harm your neighbor. Physically, emotionally, intentionally. That is very sad. If we can’t watch out for each other, our neighbors, friends and families, how can you expect to save the world?
    There has been little to no information supplied by Mr. Sands to the town to educate the people. This after years of research, by Mr. Sands. “Pro process” way of thinking should mean sharing information. Grafton is a great town and should be left that way and not sold to benefit a few. People are being harmed.

  5. Kim Record says:

    Well said Jenny!

  6. Annette Smith says:

    Wind energy is an ugly business. I feel sorry for the people of Grafton, on both sides for and against the wind project. Maybe the town can come together to say “we are tired of fighting each other because of Iberdrola and Meadowsend Timber. Let’s find a way to come together and ask them to drop this divisive proposal so we can heal.”

  7. Jenny Cady says:

    Certainly seems to me that anyone with a pro-process way of thinking is being bullied right out of town. Why is it that if someone wants to educate the town on all aspects of a potential decision they are threatened, bullied and attacked?

    The actions of a select few ‘anti-winders’ are despicable, and frankly a bit Hitler-esq. Good for Al for doing all he can to bring information to the town, helping to give the folks of Grafton all the tools/information/knowledge needed to make an educated vote, when the time comes.

    At no time has he ridiculed any resident for a different way of thinking, or a difference of opinion, not what can be said of those who are outwardly against the project. I know Al well and in NO conversation we’ve had has he said he’s for or against the wind project. Only that he wants people to have as much information as possible. He’s PRO-PROCESS!

    I think it’s quite convenient the alleged signed copy of the new code of conduct policy is not an original and is an extremely poor photocopy. Something smells of rotten fish.

    I grew up in Grafton, and during that time, it was a community. Everyone looked out for one another, helped one another and took care of one another. It was a place I was proud to call home. Now, 15+ years later, since moving away, I’m mostly ashamed to call Grafton home. In fact, I’d truly love it if my parents moved out of Grafton. I’d love it if they moved closer, closer to my family; my kids, their grandchildren. I guess maybe, I might be crazy, I do live under a few turbines that are on Georgia Mountain, with my family. My family that is healthy. But, then I think about all the amazing people and families still in Grafton, and know that my parents staying in Grafton and working for pro-process is best, and what’s needed.

    However, my 6 year old wants to know why when we visit, people in Grafton won’t allow her to do cartwheels on their lawns? My 4 year old, he thinks the way people talk to (or rather attack) others in Grafton is mean, and “disrespectable” (yes, that’s disrespectful in 4-year-old speak). He thinks that people should be nicer to others.

    I think he’s onto something. He might only be 4, but he knows how to treat others, how to respect another person. And, he knows what’s happening in Grafton isn’t respect for one another.

    Just remember, that person who is open to wind turbines, pro-process and doesn’t succumb to the bullying may someday be who you need to help you. You might need them to help you get your car out of a ditch, or stop the stream from flowing into your basement. Or, god forbid, you might need them to call the ambulance.

    You’ll want them to do that, right? Yeah. so maybe just be a little kinder to one another.