SKOWHEGAN — Residents frustrated with Somerset County commissioners’ support of a controversial power line project asked the commission to vote again on their support Wednesday following complaints that Commissioner Lloyd Trafton had a conflict of interest on the subject.

“What will it take for you to resign from this position?” Dennistown Plantation resident Rene Guay asked Trafton during Wednesday’s county commissioners meeting. “Every single town in your district you’ve been undermining.”

About 20 people attended the meeting at the Somerset County Superior Court building, a handful of whom expressed their frustrations with commissioners’ handling of business related to the New England Clean Energy Connect project.

The project, currently being considered for approval by the state, would construct 145 miles of new transmission line to bring hydropower from Quebec to Lewiston through western Maine, including Somerset County.

Opponents of the project recently accused Trafton of a conflict of interest for his role serving on the board of directors for Western Mountains & Rivers Corp., a nonprofit formed to oversee the spending of $22 million in mitigation dollars from Central Maine Power, the project developer, in exchange for support.

As a commissioner, Trafton participated in a December vote on whether the county should support the NECEC, voting in support of the project, and helped interview candidates to sit on the Land Use Planning Commission, one of the state agencies responsible for permitting the project.

Wednesday’s agenda contained no business related to the NECEC project, but opponents still took the meeting as an opportunity to voice their frustration.

“Since Lloyd broke his ties with Western Mountains and Rivers, I’d like to vote to nullify your previous vote on NECEC,” said Kerry Hegarty, of Jackman. “I saw that as a conflict of interest, that he was even on Western Mountains and Rivers. Now that he broke his ties with it, I think that previous vote was no good, and I’m asking to do another vote and make it clear.”

“There’s all kinds of ethics questions pertaining to Commissioner Trafton,” said Guay, the resident from Dennistown Plantation.

Rene Guay, of Dennistown Plantation, confronts Somerset County Commissioner Lloyd Trafton on Wednesday about a possible conflict of interest involving his former role as a board member of the Western Maine & Rivers during a Somerset County commissioners meeting at the Somerset County Superior Court in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

He asked the commission if anyone had looked into Trafton’s recent role in interviewing candidates to sit on the state’s Land Use Planning Commission, one of the agencies responsible for permitting the NECEC project.

Opponents of the project in April filed a complaint about the situation with the Maine Office of the Attorney General. The complaint was forwarded to the county for its consideration.

Newell Graf, chairman of the county commissioners, said in response that “the (attorney general) looked at this and said there’s nothing to it as far as Commissioner Trafton is concerned. The AG’s office and the county both said there is no conflict.”

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Guay asked Trafton if, because his wife used to work for CMP, they have any stock in the company.

“No,” Trafton said. “She was a part-time employee of CMP. She’s been retired for 10 years. There’s no interest there whatsoever on our part.”

Guay also asked Trafton if he continues to maintain that there is no conflict of interest between his role as a commissioner and former role as a board member for Western Mountains & Rivers.

“I absolutely do,” Trafton said.

“You’re the only one that feels that way,” Guay said.

Other residents Wednesday also voiced their frustration and asked commissioners to redo the December vote.

“We’re feeling our voices aren’t being heard,” said Jackman resident Sheryl Hughey-Harth. “Yes, we are just a few hundred people. We are just a few small businesses, but our small towns should matter.

“Quite frankly I’m appalled Mr. Trafton is still in denial about a conflict of interest when nobody that I know in the unorganized territory ever had that gentleman ever knock on their doors and ask them, ‘What do you think about this proposal?'”

Sheryl Hughey-Harth, of Jackman, hugs Sally Kwan, of T5 R7, after a Somerset County commissioners meeting Wednesday at the Somerset County Superior Court in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Skowhegan resident Jennifer Poirier also spoke before the commission and submitted to them a letter with her concerns.

“Conflicts of interest have been a smear to the integrity of the County Commissioners,” the letter said. “Mr. Trafton, your involvement with (Western Mountains & Rivers) is a conflict. I appreciate you resigned from that board, but it does not negate the fact that you were on the board to support NECEC.”

Trafton declined to comment to a reporter after the meeting and said all inquires should be sent to the county administrator. During the meeting he said he would not consider another vote on support of the NECEC.

“I’m the one who made the original motion and I’m not going to change it,” he said.

County Administrator Dawn DiBlasi said last week the county had checked with its attorney, who said there was no conflict of interest for Trafton.

She also showed the Morning Sentinel an email Trafton sent last week to Western Mountains & Rivers President Russell Walters saying he was resigning because complaints to the commissioners’ office were causing too much work for the office staff.

Walters, in an interview this week, said the group approached Trafton last year about serving on the board because he was a local resident familiar with the issues facing the county.

He said Trafton did not participate in negotiating the memorandum of understanding with CMP that promises $22 million if the project is built.

“Lloyd was someone who had been in the area a long time,” Walters said. “I know his interest when he first came on the board was mostly that he felt by supporting NECEC he would in fact be preventing future wind turbines in the area because it would take out the opportunity for it by providing clean energy.”

Walters said board members for Western Mountains & Rivers are not compensated and “every board member who has put in their time on this has done everything totally volunteer.”

Asked about Trafton’s participation in the December vote and in interviewing candidates for the LUPC, Walters said he thought Trafton was only trying to do what he thought was in the best interest of the county commission.

“I’m sorry he had to resign from Western Mountains & Rivers, but I understand why he did,” Walters said. “He just doesn’t want to bring any more confusion into the issue. He felt there’s not a whole lot on our side going on right now, so he felt this was a good time to resign while it’s sort of in a status of going through the permitting process.”

 

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