by Thomas P. Caldwell
BRISTOL — The Newfound Lake Wind Watch page on Facebook is abuzz with complaints about Governor Maggie Hassan's nomination of state Senator Bob Odell to one of two "public" seats on the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee, which reviews energy proposals for the state. Not only do they see it as hijacking the grassroots voice on the oversight committee, many think Odell's previous support of a wind project in Lempster proves he would not be an impartial voice.
The group, now known as New Hampshire Wind Watch, is mobilizing to kill the nomination when it goes before the Executive Council for confirmation on Oct. 1. By calling, writing, and e-mailing the governor and members of the Executive Council, members hope to convince them that Odell is not the right person for the job.
The N.H. Legislature, in redefining the SEC though Senate Bill 245, reduced the size of the panel from 15 to nine members, of which two were to be members of the public — and one of those must be an attorney. Hassan has not yet named an attorney but she nominated Odell, with Representative Amanda Merrill as alternate, to the other "public" seat.
"New Hampshire Wind Watch is appalled by the governor's selection," said Lori Lerner, president of the nonprofit organization. "It was evident throughout the many hearings and committee meetings leading to SB-245's passage that the Legislature wanted to invite greater public involvement of those who ultimately must live with the decisions of the SEC. We need fresh eyes on the SEC and the sense that the 'public' is really being represented. Senator Odell's nomination flies in the face of that intent."
Sen. Jeanie Forrester of Meredith, who was a sponsor of SB-245, agreed. "While I have a great deal of respect both for Sen. Odell and Sen. Merrill, both of whom I have served with, the intent of the legislation was to have the public interest represented."
The SEC originally comprised the heads of 15 state agencies. SB-245 recognized the impracticality of having department heads serving as judges on the energy projects being proposed for the state. Instead, under the bill, the departments would continue to provide the critical information needed to make decisions, but seven individuals nominated and vetted through the same process used for senior agency leaders would be used to appoint the panel. An additional two members would represent the public.
During the hearings, the lack of representation by the municipalities affected by the decisions was an important consideration. While the SEC has the authority to overrule local planning and zoning laws in deciding about the greater public good, the towns had no seat at the table during the discussions. SB-245 addressed the problem by requiring regional representation by two members of the public, one of which would be an attorney capable of reviewing the legal issues involved. The other public member also would be charged with considering local zoning ordinances and municipal master plans in reaching a decision on whether the project is in the public interest.
According to an analysis of the bill provided by Lerner last spring, Odell had asked Commissioner Tom Burack of the N.H. Department of Environmental Services whether the bill made "too radical" of a change. "Burack replied that it was 'evolutionary' change warranted by the changing energy marketplace and by the budget realities facing all state agencies."
In addition to changing the makeup of the panel, SB-245 requires an applicant to hold pre-application and post-application public information meetings, followed by a public hearing to give members of the public an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the process. It also requires applicants to pay a fee to cover the SEC costs associated with the project, including the cost of a staff director to manage the SEC's work.
Forrester said, "One of the things we heard throughout the process of all these pieces of legislation, starting with SB-99, was the lack of trust people had with Concord and the feeling that legislators, with the lobbyists and business community and developers, were not really acting in their best interest. So we thought really hard about the importance of having someone on the SEC that would put the public interest into the process; so there would be someone from the public.
"It started out with many more members of the public," she said, but they reduced the number to keep the panel manageable. "But the intent was to have someone at the grassroots level, like a planning commission member, a selectman, a zoning board member, who would represent the communities' best interest."
Addressing the stipulation that one of the public representatives be a lawyer, Forrester said it was not something she supported but "I was only one person, and you have to make compromises to get something passed."
She concluded, "Clearly what you're going to be hearing from the public is they are not happy with the governor's choice because it is truly not what they — or I — envisioned."