At the second “special meeting” of the Burrillville Town Council, held as a semi-official “workshop” to allow discussion of various aspects of Invenergy‘s plan to build a fracked gas and diesel oil burning electrical plant in the town, the agenda, entitled “Hour on Power II” claimed that the “fundamentals of municipal tax agreements” would be discussed. Potential tax agreements with Invenergy are a very contentious issue, because under state law, as explained by Conservation Law Foundation Senior Attorney Jerry Elmer, Burillville has the right to set the property taxes on the plant at any level it chooses, yet Town Solicitor Oleg Nikolyszyn, it seems, disagrees, maintaining that the Town must negotiate a fair tax treaty with Invenergy.
Expecting that there would be expert legal advice on offer, many residents made the trip to this special meeting, only to find that there were no lawyers or expert advice on offer. Instead, the Town Council introduced Dr. Robin Muksian, a resident of Burrillville who currently serves as executive director of operations for the Providence School Department. She holds a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition. Speaking as someone with some experience in negotiating deals between the state and private citizens, (she claims to have once lost a strip of land to the state in some kind of imminent domain situation) Muksian said that under state law, the town “must” negotiate with Invenergy, they can’t just set the tax at what ever rate they wish. Jerry Elmer explained otherwise, quite clearly, here.
Muksian misquoted the statute, advancing the idea that under state law 44-3-30, Burrillville “must negotiate” with Invenergy for a fair tax treaty, when the law actually states that town may “determine, by ordinance or resolution, an amount of taxes to be paid each year”. The plain text of the law does not contain the word negotiate, and if other laws on the books do contain such a provision, it does not matter, because 44-3-30 starts with the words, “Notwithstanding any other provisions of the general laws to the contrary,” meaning that 44-3-30 supersedes any other laws governing such negotiations.
Muksian also admitted to coming to the power plant issue late, and that she hadn’t attended any of the Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) meetings held in the town so far. This might explain why she thought that residents could bring questions to the EFSB, instead of just comments. The EFSB does not respond to residents at these meetings, yet Muksian said that questions should be brought to the EFSB at these meetings.
Under questioning from Burrillville resident Paul Lefebvre, Muksian at first dodged the question of whether or not she opposed the building of the new power plant. It took Lefebvre several questions before Muksian reluctantly said that she opposes the plant. For some reason she seemed at first to strike a more neutral position.
Most of Muksian’s talk is in the first half hour of the video below. Note that the meeting took place in Burrillville’s beautiful Assembly Theater, which was dark and not kind to video or photography. The Town Council is on the stage, well lit. The rest of those in attendance, not so much.
Many in attendance were asking themselves why Muksian was given so much time to expound on legal issues she was clearly not qualified to speak about. She constantly prefaced her comments by saying that she was “speaking as a resident of Burrillville” and that she wasn’t a lawyer. That raised an important question for the Town Council that went unanswered: Why Muksian and not any other non-lawyer resident of Burrillville?
After the meeting a resident told me that there is a rumor that Muksian is being considered for the position of Town Manager. Michael Wood, the current Town Manager, was not in attendance at the meeting, and Council President John Pacheco, from the stage, made a pointed comment about Wood’s contract being up for renewal in February of 2017. During the meeting, when a resident suggested that Michael Wood be fired, there was a standing ovation.
Wood has alienated many in the town with what one resident characterized as his “imperious” attitude. Further, in the April 23 Burrillville Bugle, delivered to every resident’s mailbox every month, Wood made comments that seemed to indicate his support for the new power plant and disregarded the environmental and health concerns of residents. For instance, he said, “the negative effects of the existing power plant, Ocean State, is not “anything to be overly concerned about.” Many feel that the over all tenor of his comments in the Bugle indicate that he supports building the plant.
As a result, the residents of Burrillville distrust Wood’s judgement when it comes to the hiring of experts to review the proposed plant’s impact on health, environment, wildlife, water quality, noise etc. They also distrust his ability to negotiate with Invenergy wisely, with the best interests of the town in mind.
A breath of fresh air came to the meeting about 82 minutes into it. Barry Craig, an actual lawyer (though not one licensed to practice law in Rhode Island) and a Burrillville resident, rose to call out the Town Council and Town Solicitor Oleg Nikolyszyn on what he termed their timidity in dealing with Invenergy.
Craig attended the first EFSB meeting in Burrillville. He thought, “it was very poorly managed.” He called the set up of the meeting, with the applicants (Invenergy’s Director of Development John Niland and his lawyers) on stage and the residents of Burrillville below them in the seats of the auditorium was “an insult.”
Craig said that to defeat this plant, the residents of Burrillville, through their Town Council, must “vigorously oppose” the plant. Craig came to the special town council meeting last night because he read the legal opinions of Town Solicitor Nikolyszyn, made in response to questions posed by residents. “At best,” said Craig, “I read these responses as being timid, at worst I read these responses as responses that discourage action rather than encourage action.”
For instance, the proper answer to the question, “Can the town council find new solutions to prevent locating the power plant in Burrillville?” isn’t to note that the EFSB has enormous power, the answer, says Craig, is, “Can we find creative ways of dealing with this issue? … Anything that delays this project makes it less likely… Companies like this work on a time schedule. If they can’t get a project done within a particular time frame they move onto the next project.”
One thing that became very clear in last night’s Burrillville Town council meeting is that discussing complex legal issues without lawyers present is a waste of time. Perhaps Muksian’s appearance was an audition for a future job, perhaps she’s just a citizen who waded into waters over her head, but her advice and commentary were worse than a waste of time: They spread dangerous misinformation, misinformation that will weaken the Town’s resolve and ability to fight Invenergy’s plans for the town.
Burrillville doesn’t need more bullshit. Burrillville needs courageous leadership ready to fight Invenergy with everything they have, or they will be living with the first of a series of such power plants very soon.