Thursday, November 19, 2009

And now a word from the voters...

With yesterday's counting of absentee ballots that pushed Urban Hirschey ahead of five-term incumbent Thomas Rienbeck, the three towns where commercial wind-development policy became something of a local referendum have sent a loud and clear message to wind farm developers and their rabid supporters: wind politics is local.

In Hammond, an incumbent who had served for 18 years and who was strongly in favor of wind farm development, Janie Hollister, lost by 50 votes to Ronald Bertram, a newcomer who promised to look at all sides of the local wind debate. In the Town Council race, two candidates running on Bertram's platform defeated two men who have urged a quick adoption of a permissive wind energy law that would open much of the town up to windmill development. Douglas Delosh and James Tague will join Bertram on the council.

In Cape Vincent, Mr. Hirschey won in a town riven by the wind debate. He is joined by incoming councilman Brooks Bragdon, putting two members of the Wind Power Ethics Group, the Cape's wind farm opposition group, on the Town Council.

In Henderson, the results are more subtle but the message was clear: people in that town are opposed to wind farm development. A new supervisor leading a reconstituted town board without question heard that message.

To put these elections purely in the context of pro-wind or anti-wind is a simplistic view, however. In both Hammond and Cape Vincent, residents spoke to the concern over conflicts of interest on the part of public officials, the speed with which wind ordinances were proposed and the lack of heed the elected officials accorded to wind-power opponents. If you don't think this interaction is a vital component of the dynamic between elected representative and voters, look at Orleans and Clayton, where there was no backlash vote and where, not coincidentally, the town councils have made sure the public has been involved in the process with community based committees formed to advise on wind-power decisions.

Hammond resident Brooke Stark assessed the town election and why the incumbent board was rejected in the Nov. 4 story in the Times: "They really have done a lot," she said. "But I think they got complacent and were not interested in educating the community about something they'd already made up their minds about. They wanted the wind law to go forward and that was that. People got fed up with that, and every time we felt that our voices were being shut down, it provided more impetus to get active."

Caveat emptor! While the wind power issue was at the core of this election, the arrogance of power was the nail that sealed the coffins of the defeated incumbents. To take it a tad further, Henderson voters, while vocal about not endorsing wind power projects in the town, were probably more sick of the chaos that reigned over the Henderson Town Council; out-of-control meetings that lasted four hours, a deputy supervisor who frequently appeared to be in charge, petty bickering over nearly every matter to come before the board and a supervisor locked in a legal battle with his own town over what is probably an illegal junkyard all made Henderson voters simply unwilling to endorse the status quo.

Now comes the challenge for the victors: you all have to find a way to respond to the voters' mandate. In Cape Vincent, a Town Council unable, theoretically, to even vote on any wind-power-related issues has nevertheless bent over backward to ease the path for two wind developers. Actions taken by the lame-duck board between now and Jan. 1 will set the tone for the incoming council. Mr. Rienbeck appears determined to ram a wind-power zoning law through in the next six weeks, even though three of his fellow councilmen have acknowledged conflicts of interest because of existing agreements with wind-farm developers. The only way a zoning law can be enacted is if at least two of those three violate ethics codes to vote on an issue they have promised not to vote on.

If that happens, it is almost inevitable the town will be taken to court, the attorney general will be asked to undertake an investigation of how the law got forced through and Mr. Hirschey and his board will have to figure out how – and in fact whether – to defend the town against the actions. It's going to be a mess and it's going to be expensive. And it's needless.

In Hammond, the new council would do well to immediately return its wind policy to a legitimate, inclusive citizens committee with the promise to take their recommendations seriously. If those recommendations and subsequent public hearings end up severely restricting wind-farm development in Hammond, well, the people will have spoken – just as it should be.

And in Henderson, where the looming battle is over the transmission lines from a wind project that the town has absolutely no control over because it's in Hounsfield, the challenge will be to refocus the council so that it has the wherewithal and political resolve to respond in the way its citizens demand. A focused and rational governing body would be such an improvement in Henderson that an unsuccessful but well-waged battle against the transmission lines would no doubt be a huge relief to most Henderson residents.

This election sent a powerful message about the relationship between the elected and the electorate. It would be good if everyone was listening.

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