BRATTLEBORO—Tense discussion broke out at the April 5 Selectboard meeting over — what else? A Vermont Yankee issue.
But the proposed letter of concern from an antinuclear group over the fate of the 39-year-old Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee plant — the topic at the center of the conflict — has led to a broader discussion centered on the Selectboard’s procedure for selecting agenda items.
At issue: if citizens place a non-binding referendum question on the Town Meeting Australian ballot — added after the previous Selectboard declined to put the letter on its agenda — does that require the board to address the issue?
The board voted to table the discussion about a letter of concerns from the Safe & Green Campaign antinuclear group until the April 19 Selectboard meeting.
Three Selectboard members will present a rewritten draft of a letter that Safe & Green is urging representatives of area towns and cities to sign regarding the “effects of the scheduled closure of Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee on workers, residents, and the environment of our towns and cities.”
On March 1, by a 1,031-to-427 margin, Brattleboro voters approved a non-binding initiative that requested that the Selectboard sign the letter.
During the meeting, Bob Bady, Vermont Coordinator with Safe & Green challenged Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray, among other things, for not allowing the letter on the board’s meeting agenda.
DeGray responded with, “You’re not in charge and you’re out of order.”
Chad Simmons, also of Safe & Green told the Selectboard he was “disappointed” and it was because of meetings like April 5th’s that he doesn’t regularly attend Selectboard meetings.
DeGray said after the meeting and the vote that the board is not required to take action on non-binding initiatives.
“I can’t vote for anything [in the letter], because I think this is a dangerous precedent to respond to a non-binding question,” DeGray said.
DeGray said, for him, the issue isn’t about Vermont Yankee but about protecting the Town Charter and its definition of non-binding initiatives.
Bady said his group wanted to “band all the towns within the tri-state evacuation zone together” with similar statements of concern.
Bady said another goal of the letter is to activate local governments regarding the closing and decommissioning of Vermont Yankee. If towns don’t advocate for their own interests, he said, they could “get stuck holding the bag.”
“If you trust Entergy and the NRC, then the letter is unnecessary,” said Bady.
But if you don’t, he added, then the letter speaks out for all the affected communities.
According to Bady, 14 towns in the tri-state area have signed the letter.
Dummerston, Putney, and Westminster all signed the letter as drafted by Safe & Green, while Marlboro added a list of its Vermont Yankee-related town meeting resolutions, said Bady.
The Newfane Selectboard chose not to sign, as did Chesterfield, N.H.
Keene, N.H. also declined to sign, although Bady said in light of the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, he believes Keene’s mayor wants to revisit the letter.
Bady said Safe & Green hopes another 20 towns will sign, but it’s been a long haul getting their letter before the Brattleboro Selectboard.
In November 2010, under the previous Selectboard, which included Jesse Corum, Martha O’Connor, and Daryl Pillsbury, Bady sent DeGray the letter.
Bady had hoped to speak with DeGray one-to-one to explain the letter’s goals, adding that Safe & Green had contacted the boards in the other towns in order to be placed on their respective agendas.
But Bady didn’t get to speak with DeGray on his terms.
Instead, before meeting with Bady, DeGray decided to show the letter to the rest of the board.
DeGray, in a later interview, said he contacted the other board members. Three of the members weren’t interested, he said, so the letter did not go on the agenda in 2010.
Bady said he didn’t like what he characterized as the done-deal attitude of DeGray’s conversation, although he admitted that DeGray suggested Safe & Green members try their luck getting a non-binding initiative on the town ballot.
According to Secretary of State Jim Condos, and Kathy Scheele, director of the Elections and Campaign Finance Division, non-binding initiatives allow voters to express an opinion, but do not compel the Selectboard to take action.
“Under the Brattleboro Town Charter, the board is bound to place non-binding initiatives on the warning to allow the voters to express an opinion, but there is nothing in the charter or state law that binds the board to take action,” Condos wrote in an e-mail. “So, the board could do nothing, write its own letter, or send a letter drafted by someone else if the board so votes.”
Safe & Green decided on the non-binding initiative because “it’s a clear way of gauging public opinion,” said Bady.
“It’s the same public opinion that appointed them [the Selectboard],” he added.
Bady said that Safe & Green trying its luck at a binding resolution amounted to “an absurd idea.”
Also, presenting the letter during the public comment portion of a Selectboard meeting would have resulted in “little more than a Gestalt exercise,” he said.
The Selectboard routinely hears from people who feel passionate about particular issues during the public comment period, said Bady.
The board “just thanks them, and then moves on,” he said.
After the March 1 election, in which voters approved the non-binding initiative, Bady said he approached the three new Selectboard members individually at the March 19 Representative Town Meeting.
Through new Selectboard member David Gartenstein, Bady learned DeGray didn’t want the letter on the Selectboard’s April 5 agenda.
But according to Bady, Gartenstein thought enough of the board members could make a case for putting the issue on the April 19 meeting agenda.
Later, Bady received an e-mail from Town Manager Barbara Sondag, informing him the letter would appear on the April 5 agenda.
About the outcome of the April 5 meeting where Bady and DeGray shared some tense words, Bady said he knows DeGray supports Vermont Yankee “and that’s okay. But he’s being obstructionist and undemocratic.”
According to Brattleboro’s Selectboard rules for conduct of meetings and hearings, in March 2010, the chair and vice-chair set the board’s rules for agenda items. Every April, the new Selectboard can rewrite its rules for conduct of meetings and hearings.
The chair and vice-chair must agree on the agenda items. If they don’t, the item is put to a vote by the remaining board members.
According to DeGray, the other Selectboard members weigh in only on contested items. Otherwise, they tend not to see the agenda before it’s set, he said.
DeGray said if Vice-Chair Christopher Chapman had wanted to see Safe & Green’s letter of support on the agenda, DeGray would have added the letter.
In the end, DeGray said, he “acquiesced” to the feelings of his fellow board members and put the letter on the agenda.
“It’s not personal to me,” said DeGray.
He added he always tries to vote in the best interest of the town, and feels it’s his right as Chair to select agenda items.
According to Gartenstein, he requested the letter be placed on the agenda.
During the April 5 meeting, Gartenstein expressed concern over the manner in which the letter came to be on the agenda. He said he wanted to address the board’s agenda-setting procedure.
In a separate interview, Gartenstein said he wants to see all Selectboard members sent notice about agenda items.
Gartenstein, who works as Deputy State’s Attorney for Windham County, favors transparency in government, save for the “limited exceptions” in Vermont’s open meeting law.
He said all board members should receive notice of what items might appear on the agenda, when the chair and vice-chair will set the agenda, and which items were not included on the agenda and the reasons why.
Because many voters approved the Safe & Green ballot question, Gartenstein said he felt the letter should show up on the agenda.
People could argue whether the Safe & Green non-binding initiative was germane to town business, said Gartenstein.
Gartenstein added that he felt the letter did pertain to town business, noting Brattleboro’s participation in Vermont Yankee-related emergency planning, local groups having intervenor status in legal proceedings, and equipment or waste going to and from the plant passing through the town.
Still, Gartenstein said he took issue with some of the “adversarial” language in the letter. He also questioned some of the letter’s requests, such as establishing a citizen advisory board.
Given the lack of common ground between anti- and pro-nuclear sides in Brattleboro, said Gartenstein, he questioned the “efficacy” of such a board.
Board members Gartenstein, Ken Schneck, and Dora Bouboulis agreed to redraft the letter with representatives from Safe & Green.
The members will present the edited letter to the Selectboard April 19 for a vote.