Protestors plan to march from the Statehouse to Burrillville this weekend as they continue to fight a proposed power plant. The state is still vetting the project, but it has support from top state officials, including the governor. Opponents of the power plant have concerns about the project’s transparency.
Nearly a year ago at a press conference Michael Polsky, the CEO of Chicago-based Invenergy, announced his plans to bring a new business to the state.
“I am very pleased to speak with you today about a new state-of-the-art, clean energy generation—power generation—facility that our company is developing in the town of Burrillville, Rhode Island,” said Polsky.
Gov. Gina Raimondo joined Polsky to thank him for investing in Rhode Island.
“I know you have choices about where you could be and I’m pleased you’ve chosen Rhode Island and you should know we are going to make sure that you are successful here,” said the governor.
Seven months earlier, Polsky donated a $1,000 to the governor, the maximum annual legal limit from an individual to a political candidate.
“A campaign donation is just a first handshake,” said Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a group that compiles information on political donations in all 50 states on the website Follow The Money.
"It’s a, ‘Hello, how are you?’ And it begins a series of conversations. And in this case it was with that initial check that the relationship moved on to a place where the lawmaker was convinced of the benefits of the project," continued Bender.
Two of Invenergy’s lawyers, Richard Beretta and Alan Shoer, also made political contributions to the governor that same month (neither responded to interview requests). They represent other clients besides Invenergy and they’ve donated to the governor in previous years, too.
The governor declined an interview on this subject, but in a written statement her communications director said the governor has never and will never allow political contributions to influence her policies.
But Bender said political donations are about influencing policy and there’s nothing illegal about that. It’s a part of our lobbying process.
“At the end of the day it is about controlling the agenda and having as many people – whether they are individuals with the lobbying firm or staff for the candidates, or just friends and allies within the party – make as many connections as they can. That is making weight. That is a make weight argument for why this policy should move forward.”
At the time of Polsky’s donation and project announcement with the governor, Invenergy had not yet filed an application with the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board, the first formal step in seeking approval to build a power plant. All three members of that board are appointed by the governor.
Through a series of public hearings, opponents of the power plant have raised concerns about whether the project will get an authentic review, given the governor’s endorsement. Burrillville resident Jason Olkowski thinks the governor introduced a conflict of interest.
"The governor comes out and says, ‘We're excited about these jobs coming to the state; we're excited about this project coming to the state,’ and then you start the approval process,” notes Olkowski, “which requires advisory opinions from a number of people that all ultimately report up to the governor. I think there are certainly concerns about transparency and accountability in that process."
Transparency concerns have been fueled by the perception that Burrillville town officials have withheld information about the power plant, particularly when they learned about the project and when they started to negotiate a tax treaty with the company Invenergy.
A couple of town councilors have repeatedly said the council didn’t solicit the project. Town Manager Michael Wood said he first learned about the power plant directly from Invenergy officials.
Burrillville State Rep. Cale Keable “brought them to town and introduced me to them in December of 2014,” said Wood.
Keable denies arranging that meeting more than a year and a half ago. He declined to be interviewed but stated in a letter that Invenergy’s lawyer called the meeting. Several months later, Keable received a $200 political contribution from Invenergy’s lawyer. Keable said he doesn’t remember the donation.
That December meeting and ongoing tax negotiations between the town council and Invenergy officials have not been part of the public record.
Olkowski said people feel like they’re in the dark. “So I think the townspeople are left to wonder, ‘Why can’t information be shared with people in town?’ Is this because the company is getting a sweetheart deal?”
Wood said the details of a complex multimillion-dollar treaty aren’t typically negotiated in public, and town officials are trying to get the best deal they can for their constituents.
“We don’t want to compromise our process of negotiations,” said Wood. “We don’t want to talk publicly about something that will potentially have a negative impact on our ability to make the deals that we need to make.”
The Burrillville town council recently shared some details of a tax deal that has yet to be finalized.
Residents want the council to take position on the power plant, but councilors explained at a meeting last month that they need to remain neutral on the project. They don’t want to appear as if they’re influencing people they’ve appointed to the town planning and zoning boards.
These boards are among a dozen local and state agencies that have to write advisory opinions to the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board, the agency in charge of approving the power plant application.
Councilor Donald Fox told residents they’ll be able to take a position after those opinions are filed.
“We’ll be able to at that point – without unduly influencing the process and giving Invenergy’s lawyers ammunition against us – at that point we will have done our due diligence and executed the fiduciary responsibilities we were elected to do and then we can provide our opinions,” said Fox. “We can provide the support you people are looking for.”
Residents and other opponents of the power plant don’t feel satisfied with these answers. They feel the odds are stacked against them because of the influence of a large corporation and the governor’s support. But they continue to battle the project. And the governor has agreed to hear their concerns at a meeting in Burrillville next week.