A private March 6 meeting between at least 30 elected Town Meeting members and a company intent on building a power plant in Walpole has prompted criticism that the session may have violated the state's Open Meeting law, and unfairly influenced a townwide zoning vote four days later.
A spokesman for the Norfolk County district attorney's office said the office has received a communication from a resident questioning the legality of the meeting, but no official request for an investigation has been filed.
The meeting was organized by Kevin Foley, an elected Town Meeting representative from Precinct 4. He convened the gathering at a neighbor's house to learn more about the proposal by Competitive Power Ventures Inc. to build a fossil-fuel power plant in Walpole - a plan selectmen have rejected.
The meeting was held just four days before Town Meeting representatives would cast ballots at a March 10 Special Town Meeting on zoning bylaw changes designed to discourage unpopular or controversial businesses, such as power plants. The measure ended up winning a majority of the vote but not the two-thirds margin required for passage.
"They wanted to slam through huge changes to our bylaws," just to discourage the power company, Foley said. He said the power plant, which would provide the town with millions of dollars in new revenue, deserved a "second look. As it is, the public schools don't have a librarian."
So, to learn more about the issue, Foley called the company's attorney and former town moderator James Brady and asked him to arrange for the company to meet with the Town Meeting representatives before the zoning vote. The company agreed. Foley said he then started calling people, making it about halfway through the full list of representatives. Some people who are not Town Meeting representatives also attended, along with a few elected officials, according to people who attended. "I've had meetings like this before. Here, I wanted to provide an environment free of hostility; and free of candle-waving, fear-mongering zealots."
The plant may or may not be right for the town, Foley said. "I can live with that. What I can't live with is not having the opportunity to hear about it."
Company vice president and public affairs counsel Braith Kelly said the Town Meeting representatives "sought us out" to attend the informational meeting, and the company was happy to respond. "We were trying to help public officers make a decision that was informed, at their request."
Kelly last week said he is aware of the controversy that followed the session. "What we are told is that some people believe that holding private meetings is inappropriate," he said. "Our feeling is, then give us a public forum that allows the broadest cross-section of citizens to make a decision on facts, not innuendo. . . . We are not a nuclear power plant."
Whether the session violated the state's Open Meeting Law is a matter of some debate in town. According to some, because the session drew less than half of Walpole's 150 elected Town Meeting representatives, it was legal. Others argue that because several elected members of various town boards also attended - some who were also representatives, some not - the meeting was inappropriate, if not illegal.
"To me, it's at least a serious beach of trust," said resident Christopher Phillips, who opposes the power plant proposal.
Critics have for months filled local blogs with complaints about what they say is Competitive Power Ventures Inc.'s tendency to operate under the radar.
"I think the whole process has to open up," Phillips said. "The company keeps saying they want an open process, then keeps doing everything behind the scenes." Company officials deny that is the case. They continue to press their case with selectmen, who last December sent them packing.
The company, which is headquartered in Braintree and in Silver Springs, Md., had proposed a payment in lieu of taxes agreement with the town that, company officials said, would have given the town at least $2 million a year for 20 years, plus another $8 million in fees. But selectmen did not go along with the proposal.
In February, the company sweetened the deal by eliminating the storage of backup fuel at the Industrial Road site, and reducing water consumption from 125,000 to 70,000 gallons a day. Selectmen have remained opposed to the plant, but others in town argue that Walpole should be more open to the power plant and the revenue it would generate.
Town Administrator Michael Boynton declined to comment on the questions raised about the March 6 meeting.
Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.