Rockingham group challenges hydro vote

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(Host) A citizens’ group in Rockingham has challenged the legality of the vote that authorized the town to buy the Bellows Falls Hydro dam.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Last November Rockingham voters agreed by a more then three fifths majority to enter into a contract to buy the dam. Since then, the town has signed agreements with the two Canadian companies that put up the money and will run the hydro facility for seventy-four years. After that, Rockingham would own the dam.

Rockingham officials expect to hear in early June whether the state Public Service Board will issue a certificate of public good approving the deal.

Meanwhile, some voters have had second thoughts. Judy Lidie was for the purchase at first.

(Lidie) “Then I started talking to other people, late in the winter and got thinking: ‘maybe this wasn’t such a hot deal, that there’s way too many unknowns.'”

(Keese) Lidie formed a group called Rockingham Dam Facts with other citizens who wanted to investigate the contract further. Now she says the group believes the town gave insufficient warning for the public hearing prior to November’s vote.

(Lidie) “Which really should invalidate the vote that happened on November twenty-third.”

(Keese) Last week Rockingham officials received a letter from the group’s lawyer, asking for a re-vote. The letter says the re-vote, like the original vote, should require approval by a three-fifths, or 60-40 majority. That’s a requirement of the law on municipal power plant acquisitions.

Without such a re-vote, the letter said, the group would likely sue to have November’s vote overturned.

Rockingham town manager, Shane O’Keefe, disputes the letter’s claim. He says the wording of the law on public hearings in such cases is confusing.

(O’Keefe) “But I know that our attorney conferred with the Secretary of State’s office on the notice requirements for the public hearing, and felt that they were comfortable going forward.”

(Keese) Rockingham is expecting to vote on the dam contract again. O’Keefe says that vote would be part of a Public service Board decision to grant a certificate of public good approving the acquisition.

(O’Keefe) “In rendering that certificate of Public good, if they so choose, they would list the risks and benefits of the proposal and the voters are asked to consider the contract in the context of the Public Service Board’s decision.”

(Keese). But O’Keefe says that vote would require a simple, rather than a three-fifths majority.

Lamont Barnett, the Rockingham Selectboard Chairman, says he believes the voters are still behind the purchase.

(Barnett) “Why wouldn’t you want tax stability and at some point energy Independence? I mean, that’s almost a forgotten part of this story is Rockingham will be served by an energy source that is a hundred percent renewable. And someday the children and grandchildren of today’s residents will have a tremendous energy source.”

(Keese) Rockingham’s attorney is working on a response to the citizens’ group demand.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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