By TAYLOR HARTZ
Members of the community neighboring Hatton Meadow, the approved location for a new solar panel installation, have not given up their fight to preserve the land.
Residents brought their concerns of recreation, wildlife, and property value to the town council on June 22, urging councilors to reconsider their approval of the location. The motion to revoke approval of the solar site failed in a 5-4 vote, meaning the installation would continue as planned.
This week, members of the Community Coalition to Save Hatton returned to the council.
At the July 13 meeting, Richard Panek, a resident of Cathy Drive, requested that the council waive the fees associated with a Freedom of Information (FOI) request he filed regarding the plans for solar panels on the meadow.
The coalition met on Berlin Drive last week to discuss their concerns that a conflict of interest may have been involved in the vote that struck down their hopes for relocating the project.
“What we’re trying to do is just open things up and show everyone that we want everything to be ethical,” said Panek.
Panek and Chad Valk, another resident of the neighborhood, spoke on behalf of the group, voicing concerns regarding town councilor Tom Lombardi.
The proposed two-acre installation is part of a 20-year contract with Greenskies Renewable Energy, of Middletown. The town has agreed to purchase energy generated by the solar panels that Greenskies will install at no cost to the town.
The Chairman of the Board at Greenskies is also the CEO of Centerplan Development Company in Middletown, where councilor Lombardi is employed as an assistant controller.
While the installation at Hatton Elementary School will save Southington $400,000 to $800,000 by generating 80 to 90 percent of energy needs for the building, the coalition is questioning how Greenskies will financially benefit from this arrangement.
Panek noted that the residents were not informed of any plans for the installation or the arrangement with Greenskies until late April, when some residents of the neighborhood received invitations from the town to attend a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting where it would be discussed.
“What we want to do is remove any perception that there is an integrity issue with the Southington Town Council or the way Southington does business,” said Valk.
Valk and Panek both questioned why Lombardi did not recuse himself from the vote to revoke approval of the site. They are seeking more information about what they consider to be a “tainted” process.
“Its harder to think of a more clear conflict of interest than a vote in favor of a company that you’re affiliated with,” said Valk.
After discussing his employment with the town attorney, Lombardi had recused himself from an earlier vote on the arrangement in 2014, when the council voted on the selection of the company.
“I did not agree that there was a conflict of interest. I simply did not want to raise the issue of a possibility of a conflict of interest,” said Lombardi, who said he chose to vote this time because the most recent vote was an issue of policy, unlike the one in 2014.
He said that once the vendor was chosen in 2014, he was able to vote on issues concerning the project, regardless of his employer. Lombardi joined four fellow republicans in voting to hold up their approval of the plan during the June 22 vote.
“I feel strongly that once we vote on something, we should stand by our votes regardless of how popular or unpopular it may be,” said Lombardi.
While they have not yet filed a formal complaint with the Southington Board of Ethics, the coalition is looking into Lombardi’s involvement with the company’s selection.
To investigate the potential conflict of interest, Panek filed the FOI request to the town, asking for all emails, documents, and meeting transcriptions involving the selection of Greenskies for the project dating back to 2014.
Last week, democrats proposed waiving the 50 cent fee per page associated with printing the requested documents, and the request was rejected. During Monday’s council meeting, Panek spoke to request, again, that those fees be waived.
“This coalition is composed of moderate income people,” said Panek, worried the total cost would be hundreds of dollars. “This would create a hardship for all of us.”
Councilor Chris Palmieri made a motion to add a discussion of waiving the fee to the new business agenda during the July 13 meeting, the motion was approved by the council.
During the discussion, councilor Cheryl Lounsbury shared concerns for setting a precedent of releasing documents, a process that holds printing and labor costs, without any financial responsibility to the resident.
Councilor Dawn Miceli pointed out that the fees were originally put in place to protect the town against repeat offenders, and Victoria Triano suggested the council review their policy on FOI fees.
“These records mean something to these people,” said councilor John Barry, who attended the Berlin Drive press conference hosted by the coalition. “I think it’s important to the town, and I think it should be important to us.”
Barry made a motion to waive the fees, which was seconded by Palmieri.
Lounsbury suggested a motion that if Barry’s motion failed, the town should compromise and send any electronic documents without a fee, while still charging 50 cents per printed page.
Lombardi joined Stephanie Urillo, Barry, Miceli, and Palmieri in supporting a motion to waive any fees associated with Panek’s FOI request.
The motion passed, 5-4, with Riccio, Lounsbury, Triano, and Paul Champagne opposing.
“We as a council have been transparent the entire time,” said Lombardi, “the FOI request will also prove that.”
Now awaiting the receipt of the emails, files and transcripts in his FOI request, Panek said he and members of the coalition will continue to pursue their cause, and are seeking legal counsel.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Taylor Hartz, email her at THartz@SouthingtonObserver.com.