Weighing in on anti-VELCO spending
Brady Toensing and I would disagree about a lot of things, but he is right to point out the spendthrift ways of Selectboard member, and former Chair, Charlie Russell.
In 2004, I viewed with alarm the tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars that Charlie and the Selectboard authorized, meeting upon meeting, for the town to spend on lawyers to oppose VELCO’s plans to upgrade its transmission lines through the west side of town. By April 2004 the spending on lawyers was already $50,000 to $20,000 above what the voters had approved for anti-VELCO spending at the March 2004 Town Meeting only one month prior. Many residents, including myself, attended Selectboard meeting after Selectboard meeting beginning in May, 2004 and repeatedly asked the board to put the exploding (and unbudgeted) legal spending program to a town-wide vote. Charlie, and Ellie Russell, refused. I urged. I begged. I pleaded with them. No, they insisted. Why not, I asked? They responded, quite dismissively, that they knew what was good for the town and they didn’t need to ask for the taxpayers’ approval to spend money on something that they believed was in the town’s best interest.
Even if it was an unprecedentedly large amount of money to spend without prior budgetary approval at town meeting, I asked? Yup, responded Charlie and Ellie.
On an issue, stepping into a Public Service Board proceeding, that was strictly a voluntary act by the town and certainly not one that everyone in town would agree with? Yup again.
At the May 24, 2004 meeting there was a motion to cap the spending (unapproved by the voters) at $75,000. The motion passed with Ellie Russell and Jenny Cole opposing. But by early August, the spending had reached at least $78,000, over the cap that the board had put in place in May. Frustrated that the board had exceeded its own cap, I again asked that spending be stopped until there was a town-wide vote. On Aug. 30, 2004, the board considered a motion to do a town survey to determine if the taxpayers supported further spending against the VELCO line upgrade. The motion was defeated by Charlie, Ellie, and Jenny. Then a motion was made to rescind the prior $75,000 cap (which had already been exceeded). The motion passed with Charlie, Ellie, and Jenny supporting. In other words, Charlie and Ellie refused to seek taxpayer input on the enormous unbudgeted anti-VELCO spending and refused to put a limit on how much the board would spend.
The spending numbers eventually climbed to over $200,000 by 2007. That was a staggering amount of taxpayer money. Most of it was unbudgeted and unapproved by the taxpayers.
Exactly whom in town did this incredibly costly (and arguably quixotic) campaign against the VELCO lines benefit? What harm would there have been from taking a town-wide vote to see if the taxpayers really cared to oppose the upgraded power lines and approved of the Selectboard’s massive opposition spending program? One can only conclude that Charlie and Ellie feared that many of the taxpayers would say no. If not a majority, then at least enough to make their huge, unapproved spending program politically problematic.
In her defense of Ellie Russell to Brady’s criticism, Bonnie Christie (who I do not recall being at any of the many meetings I attended on this issue), says “Ellie listens, and is open to various points of view.” Well, in my view, not at any of the many meetings I attended. She and Charlie gave my, and other taxpayers’, concerns the back of the hand. It seemed obvious that they had made up their minds that the Selectboard was going to spend as much money as was needed to fight a (losing) battle with VELCO and they were NOT going to ask the taxpayers’ permission to do so. I was not the only resident who attended these meetings and asked the Board to consult the taxpayers.
In the end, nothing was gained from all of that outrageous spending except that a very, very tiny section of the power lines through town, a few hundred feet across Ferry Road, were undergrounded. The upgrade project got its Certificate of Public Good, as we knew it would. The lines went up, as we knew they would. They were not ordered to be buried throughout town, as we knew they wouldn’t be. Charlie, Ellie, and Jenny spent more than a couple hundred thousand town taxpayer dollars in a doomed effort to try to get the lines throughout the entire town undergrounded. That seemed to be an extreme and unrealistic position from the start, and I believe few people believed that the Public Service Board was not going to order. How many Charlotters would have approved spending all that money only to get a few hundred feet of the line buried? We’ll never know. The Selectboard could have limited its efforts from the beginning to advocating only for undergrounding across Ferry Road, and such efforts might have cost just a tiny fraction of what was spent.
The whole episode was a huge waste of taxpayer money. Brady is right.
Walter Judge, Charlotte
Weighing in on anti-VELCO spending