Officials deny any conflicts of interest
Editor's note: This article was updated shortly after its original posting to reflect a correction.
ANTRIM — Questioned Tuesday about their public endorsements of Antrim Wind Energy in an online video made in 2012, Town Administrator Galen Stearns and now Select Board Chair Gordon Webber defended their right to speak in favor of a private wind developer.
Both Stearns and Webber can be seen speaking in favor of wind energy and the company in a video posted on the Eolian Renewable Energy’s website. The video was made by Antrim Wind Energy, a project of Eolian, a couple years ago when Webber said he was not on the Select Board. Stearns was town administrator at the time.
Antrim resident Brian Beihl brought the issue before the Select Board Tuesday, and submitted a letter, asking for Stearns and Webber to resign, arguing that public officials cannot perform their duties objectively while also showing support for a private company. “In my opinion there has been an ethics violation,” Beihl said at the meeting. “I’m here to ask for an explanation.”
Beihl said Webber is a board member now, and the video is still up on the company’s website.
The video shows Webber speaking in favor of wind farms coming to Antrim, as well as praising the project members of Antrim Wind Energy. Stearns said in the video how professional Antrim Wind has been and how he personally endorses wind energy.
On the topic of endorsing private companies, Webber brought up that Stearns is quoted in the Ledger-Transcript multiple times praising the construction company Breadloaf Construction, the contractors that built the new Antrim Police Station. “Where was your outrage then?” Webber asked Beihl at the meeting. Webber added that he can be seen speaking in favor of Breadloaf in a video on that company’s website, too.
“He was commenting in a news story,” Beihl said referring to Stearns. “That’s a different plane for advocating for a company.”
Stearns said he receives calls from other towns asking for his opinion of various companies, and he will say if he had a good experience with them or not.
Webber read from a Local Government Center book about municipal law for public officials, a book he said would hold up in court. He read from the section regarding conflicts of interest. A board member would need to have a financial interest or a direct personal interest in the outcome of a decision for their to be a conflict of interest, Webber said, based upon his understanding of the Local Government Center’s explanation.
“Every decision you make, it has to be based on personal interest in outcome,” Webber said in an interview following the meeting.
Webber acted as the ex-officio to the Planning Board during his first term on the Select Board, between 2008 and 2010. In regard to votes he made during his year on the Planning Board or the potential to cast wind-related votes during his current term as a Planning Board member, he said it doesn’t matter if you like a project application or not. He said the role of the Planning Board is to make sure the project associates follow the ordinances and, if they do, they receive a permit regardless of board members’ interests.
At the meeting, Beihl also asked the Select Board and Stearns if they had made any phone calls, sent emails or had any private conversations with Antrim Wind regarding the planning and writing of the petitioned warrant article to be voted on at Town Meeting. The article seeks to amend the current zoning ordinance to allow the construction of commercial wind farms.
The board has not been having conversations with Antrim Wind, Webber said. “Antrim Wind wrote it for the petitioners,” Webber said Tuesday, and the citizens brought the article to the town. Antrim Wind Project Manager John Soininen has said, “numerous people within the company were involved in creating the document.”
At the end of this discussion Beihl said he knows Stearns and Webber won’t resign because they don’t think they have done anything wrong. Beihl did not return calls by press time seeking comment on his next move.
Following the meeting, Webber said that when someone runs for the Select Board you say what you’re in favor of, you have a platform. “I said I was in favor of the wind project, [then] I got elected,” he said. “Brian doesn’t like that I endorsed Eolian, that’s his basis for ‘conflict of interest.’”
Since Stearns said he doesn’t have the ability to say yay or nay to a project, he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with what he’s said. “I’m not concerned about it,” Stearns said in an interview Wednesday. He said he gives his recommendation on projects, but the Select Board is the voice of the town.
The Antrim Wind Energy video can be viewed at antrim-wind.com/2012/03/27/local-voices.