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Salvatore criticizes secrecy over backroom Siemens deal

December 9, 2015

Full Press Statement issued by Selectman David Salvatore

SINCE AUGUST, THE TOWN OF WALPOLE HAS BEEN IN SECRET NEGOTIATIONS WITH SIEMENS REGARDING A TAX EXEMPTION FOR A POTENTIAL FUTURE EXPANSION ON THEIR CONEY STREET SITE

On Friday, December 4, the Board of Selectmen scheduled a Special Meeting for Tuesday, December 8 at 6 p.m. (last night) in the Town Hall Main Meeting Room. The purpose of this meeting was to release to the public the minutes of two meetings of the Board of Selectmen which were held in Executive Session.

The first set of minutes relates to an August 11 meeting in which the Board was informed that discussions were underway with Siemens and that the Town Administrator had entered into a confidentiality agreement. The Board was informed that Siemens is looking to expand and is seeking tax exemptions. The Confidentiality Agreement was that “trade secrets” and other confidential documents presented to the Town would not be distributed widely and kept confidential within the confines of the Public Records Law. Selectmen Chairman Cliff Snuffer stressed that there should be secrecy.

The second set of minutes relates to a November 3 meeting in Executive Session. There were no other updates to the Board of Selectmen during this 12-week period between the meetings, despite town officials and others having met with Siemens six to eight times in the interim period. At this November meeting, the Board was presented with a finished agreement, where Siemens would receive a $10 million tax break in their expansion over the next 20 years, in exchange for creating up to 600 jobs.

I voiced my opposition to the secrecy, and the agreement itself, in these meetings.

Usually Selectmen hold executive sessions to avoid disclosure to the other side of a negotiation. It was clear that Siemens, by the November 3 meeting, had more information than I did. I felt uncomfortable, as the secrecy was only leaving the taxpayers and the public in the dark.

Between November 3 and last Thursday, I had been inquiring and trying to make the information public. I have asked on several occasions for a timetable for release of the information to the public without a response, nor an indication that I deserved a response. On December 1, 2015, I approached Board of Selectman Chairman Clifton Snuffer and indicated that I had reserved a room at the library and I was going to discuss this matter with some constituents so as to get their feedback. He responded loudly, “Oh, no you’re not!” Chairman Snuffer indicated to me that he will “censure” me if the topic of the meeting or the issues discussed during the meeting are discussed publicly.

At this point, I looked into the rules regarding Executive Session and found that the sessions were illegal. The Board of Selectmen held meetings in executive session, citing exception number 10 of the Mass. Open Meeting Law which reads:

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 30A Section 21. Executive Sessions

(a) A public body may meet in executive session only for the following purposes:

(10) To discuss trade secrets or confidential, competitively-sensitive or other proprietary information provided in the course of activities conducted by a governmental body as an energy supplier under a license granted by the department of public utilities pursuant to section 1F of chapter 164, in the course of activities conducted as a municipal aggregator under section 134 of said chapter 164 or in the course of activities conducted by a cooperative consisting of governmental entities organized pursuant to section 136 of said chapter 164, when such governmental body, municipal aggregator or cooperative determines that such disclosure will adversely affect its ability to conduct business in relation to other entities making, selling or distributing electric power and energy.

As the Town of Walpole is not an energy supplier, and that was not the topic discussed at that meeting, the executive sessions were held in violation of the Open Meeting Law. The discussion held falls into none of the categories of exceptions allowed.

I asked that the Board immediately release the information and minutes from the Executive Sessions and that is what was, to their credit, done last night. At that meeting, Mr. Snuffer read from prepared remarks. Much of the information having never been shared with me before, I wanted to speak, but Mr. Snuffer sought and received a motion to adjourn in which all but I was in favor. If he had his way, this public information would still be private and the discussion would be delayed so that he could push this through Town Meeting without public input.

After the meeting on December 1, Mr. Snuffer told me I was “hurting Walpole.” Thankfully, Town Meeting gets to decide what is good or not for Walpole, not Mr. Snuffer. I will not be threatened into silence. I will not delay the public disclosure or public discussion of this important issue. I will be working in the coming weeks to inform the residents about the details of this deal which has been secretly negotiated since July.

Mr. Snuffer, in his comments, indicated that he was bound by a confidentiality agreement presented by Siemens and entered into by the Town Administrator. Not only would such an agreement be illegal and be superseded by the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law, but it does not mean what he purports that it means. The document attempted to protect any plans, trade secrets, or confidential documents submitted by Siemens, from public disclosure, while recognizing that the Public Records Law must be adhered to.

I apologize that I did not remedy this situation sooner. I had relied on others that the stated reason and section cited for going into Executive Session were appropriate. I will be more vigilant going forward.

I agree with the concept, so aptly stated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Transparency is indeed the key to retaining the trust of the citizens.

When I have expressed my opposition to the 90 percent tax break for Siemens, some other members of the Board responded with “well if you knew what we knew, you would agree.” All along, I was trying to find out what was going on and what I received instead was a finished product.

I am looking forward to a public discussion of this issue which will now go to Town Meeting. In this most democratic of institutions, Town Meeting, we will participate in a lively and informative discussion of the issues.

In the coming weeks I will be working to disseminate as much information as possible, and answer as many questions as possible to help facilitate a meeting where all issues and concerns are addressed.

Some at Town Hall have argued that that Town Meeting is outdated, archaic, and no longer relevant. Town Meeting has been treated by those in power as a speed bump or an obstacle to be overcome, rather than what it is – the voice of the people, the true seat of power in the town.

As we will see in the spring, Town Meeting is not only relevant, but crucial. The only way that the taxpayers are going to be protected from this secret backroom deal is by the action of the Town Meeting, which fortunately is where the power rests.

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook for further developments. My Twitter handle is @davidsalvatore.

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