MVC will consult with ethics commission to resolve solar conflict

— Photo courtesy of South Mountain Company

The Massachusetts Ethics Commission advised the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) in a telephone conversation on Tuesday, Feb. 7, that a conflict of interest that came to light during a public hearing on a solar energy project for Cronig’s Market would require more research.

The MVC had sought an oral opinion from the ethics commission. But in an email to the MVC, the ethics commission advised the MVC to seek a written opinion, a process that can take about 30 days.

MVC lawyer Gareth Orsmond from the firm of Rackemann, Sawyer and Brewster submitted a request for a written opinion on Monday.

Proponents had hoped to break ground in April. A vote on the project was expected Thursday, February 9.

John Abrams, president of South Mountain Company, which will install the solar canopies proposed for the Cronig’s project, said at the hearing the project had an “absolute deadline” and should get underway soon.

In a phone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Abrams told The Times he did not think a delay in resolving the conflict of interest issue would affect the project’s timing.

“It’s an unusual situation and needs to be dealt with because it will come up again in the future,” he said. “It’s my sense that the MVC is doing everything they can possibly do to deal with it quickly. I doubt that it will hold us up.”

Although the Cronig’s project deliberation and decision remained on the MVC’s February 9 agenda, there was no mention of the project. Following the meeting, MVC chairman Chris Murphy told The Times that the project would be put back on the agenda as soon as possible, and that a written decision might be issued within a few weeks.

The MVC is reviewing the project as a development of regional impact (DRI). At a public hearing on February 2, a majority of commissioners revealed that they, or a family member, belong to Vineyard Power (VP), a community-owned renewable energy cooperative and a co-applicant for the project with Cronig’s Market owner Steve Bernier.

At the hearing VP president Richard Andre said that the cooperative’s members, who pay a one-time fee to join, would not receive direct financial benefit from the Cronig’s project. He added that at some point in the future, VP members might receive benefits in the form of reduced electrical rates.

Commissioner Doug Sederholm, a lawyer and chairman for the February 2 hearing, said that since almost all of the commissioners present would have to recuse themselves based on that criteria, he thought that they could proceed based on the “rule of necessity,” which allows a board to act when a majority is in a conflict situation and would otherwise be unable to act.

MVC lawyer Gareth Orsmond advised the commission to seek an opinion from the state ethics commission. MVC senior planner Bill Veno said he called the ethics commission Tuesday, February 7, and that Mr. Orsmond received an initial opinion that day.

In an email to Mr. Veno and MVC chairman Chris Murphy, Mr. Orsmond said the ethics commission attorney advised him that the question was not a simple one and recommended that the MVC submit its conflict of interest question in writing, along with a request for a written decision.