A somber yet unyielding Town Council faced the displeasure of Burrillville residents Wednesday night. At issue is whether or not the residents of Burrillville can trust their elected officials to negotiate in their best interests with Invenergy, a multi-billion dollar company intent on bringing a fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant to their pristine town. The Town Council appeared to do themselves no favors allowing their lawyer, Oleg Nikolyszyn, to speak for them.
The tone for the evening was set when Jan Luby took the council to task for apparently deceiving the public at a previous town council meeting about when exactly they learned that Invenergy was planning to build a power plant in their town. Council President John Pacheco had said that the Council had learned about it in August of least year, but video has surfaced showing that they knew as early as February.
“So now that we know that there’s no question you knew in February, not August, of last year… we’d like to know how you stand now, as individuals. We are your constituents and we deserve to know,” said Luby, even as she understood that under the Open Meetings Act, the council members could not answer questions but only listen. Luby then went on to suggest that Town Manager Michael Wood be fired, to much applause.
Terri Lacey took issue with comments she has seen and heard on social media regarding citizens opposed to the power plant. “The comments that have gotten back to us, about us… are intentionally demeaning,” said Lacey, “It gives the perception to the community that we are troublemakers… and we are not to be taken seriously.”
Jason Olkowski spoke for a long time about his love for his adopted city and the quality of life he enjoys with his wife and daughter in Burrillville. “I’m concerned by a Governor that marginalizes the people of Burrillville as protesters,” said Olkowski, referencing a comment by Governor Gina Raimondo about opposition to the power plant.
The most interesting part of the evening was when the Council finally got around to Agenda Item 16-119, filed by residents Terri Lacey, Andrew Vanable, Jason Olkowski, Jeremy Bailey and Deborah Yablonski. During the last Town Council meeting it was revealed that Town Manager Michael Wood, with Town solicitors Oleg Nikolyszyn and Special Assistant Council Michael McElroy have been negotiating tax breaks for Invenergy’s power plant, without the awareness of the residents of Burrillville. Nikolyszyn and Pacheco said then that since the subject was not properly on the agenda, it could not be discussed.
But now that the item is properly on the agenda, the subject is still off limits, said Nikolyszyn. As the item came up for discussion, Nikolyszyn rose and told the crowd that such negotiations are secret and discussing details would be a violation of the law. This seemed to infuriate the crowd.
Nikolyszyn said that the Town Council was going to be briefed on the details of the negotiations after the public portion of the Town Council meeting ended, in executive (private) session. Right now, Nikolyszyn maintained, the Town Council was unaware of the details of negotiations. Despite Nikolyszyn’s preamble, residents stormed ahead and asked their questions anyway, fully aware that the Council was shielding themselves from answering behind their lawyers.
At 10:15 in the video above, Jason Olkowski and Jeremy Bailey ask their questions. The question as to when the negotiations began, why the negotiations were undertaken and who approved them could not be answered, said Nikolyszyn. The details of McElroy’s involvement with the negotiations, and how much he is paid, said Nikolyszyn, is not a public record.
The details of all negotiations will not be publicly known until negotiations are complete, said Nikolyszyn.
“That is certainly unfortunate,” replied Olkowski.
Olkowski then asked what are the advantages of negotiating a tax break for Invenrgy, rather than just leaving the $750 million plant on the tax rolls. Nikolyszyn replied that he is prepared to answer that question tonight, but in closed executive session, not with the residents in an open meeting. You don’t discuss the pros and cons of a business deal publicly, Nikolyszyn maintained.
The subject of the Town Council’s “neutrality” towards the plant came up. After the last Town Council meeting, many residents have wondered why the Town Council needs to be neutral about the power plant when Governor Raimondo has been a strong proponent. “It was I who advised the Council remain neutral” with respect to the power plant, said Nikolyszyn. “We don’t want to give [our appointed boards] marching orders, like the Governor did with the [Energy Facilities] Siting Board.”
It what could be seen as a direct attack on Raimondo’s credibility, Nikolyszyn said that not maintaining neutrality until the boards’ decisions are finalized weakens your credibility. We wants the reports of our boards to be respected, and not seen as just “following marching orders,” said Nikolyszyn.
One of the most frustrating parts of the discussion occurred at the 34 minute mark above. Tracey Keegan asked, “Could a council member make a motion to end all negotiations with Invenergy right now?”
After minutes of legalese and hemming and hawing on the part of Nikolyszyn, and after Keegan repeated the question multiple times, an exasperated Town Councillor David Place finally answered, “Yes.”
No one did, though. Instead, in a statement released today, Council President John Pacheco said, “…our team was directed to continue discussions… I’m satisfied that negotiations are headed in the right direction.”
More video from last night’s meeting:
Last note: Two Burrillville residents rose in support of the Town Council and Town Manager Michael Wood. Both were members of a board appointed by the the Town Council