Here’s an update on “Sweet Deal? Maple Producer to Tap Town Forest” regarding a 20-acre mistake on the part of Turkey Hill Maple, and the contract the company requested from the Town of Northfield for use of the Town Forest.
It appears that a 5-year contract has been awarded to Turkey Hill Maple. I’ve posted a copy of the full agreement here: Turkey Hill Maple contract
I have more concerns about this than I did earlier. And it’s not about trees or maple syrup. I’m wondering whether or not the Town followed an adequate process and whether or not we are seeing best practices in how the Selectboard makes decisions.
Here are some red flags I’m seeing.
Legality. The Town should have taken a step back to ask whether there are legal questions about the commercial use of public resources prior to voting in favor of a contract. It turns out, there may be legal issues which, if challenged, could cost the Town legal expenses and potentially render the contract null and void.
Conflict of Interest. A selectboard member cited a personal relationship with an employee of Turkey Hill Maple as a basis for his support of the decision to negotiate a contract with the company. This is the definition of an “indirect personal interest” as described in the Selectboard Handbook, page 21:
“A conflict may be present when a local official acts on a matter in which the member’s judgment may be affected because of a family or personal relationship, or membership in some organization, and a desire to help that person or organization further its own interests.”
Input from the community. A commercial contract in which one company benefits from a public resource should involve some input from the community. As you may have noticed in the comments section in my first post on this subject, use of the Town Forest is a matter of interest and there are diverse views which should have been considered.
Role of the Advisory Committee. The Town Forest is one of the primary advisory areas for the Northfield Conservation Committee. The NCC wasn’t informed about the pending contract until after the Feb 28th Selectboard vote. Upon learning about the proposal, the NCC submitted a Tree Tapping Memo for the March 9th Selectboard meeting, concluding: “Should the town want to look into opening the forest to this kind of activity in the future, a policy should first be put in place to ensure the forest resources are treated responsibly and in a manner that the town’s residents wholeheartedly support.”
These are my thoughts. As you may recall from my first post, my initial question was, “How would you feel if someone set up sugaring operations on 20 acres of your property by mistake — then asked you to sign a contract?”
But there’s a bigger problem here.
For me, the issue isn’t about whether trees should be tapped in the Town Forest or not. What I’m seeing here is a systemic problem in how we as a Town govern ourselves and make decisions. There have been controversies and mistakes in the past which were completely preventable if the Board had followed a process using best practices in governance.
More simply put, we need to “Do it Once and Do it Right.”
How does the board do it once and do it right? Well, my first recommendation is that all board members annually attend professional development opportunities provided by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT), but I’ll save that for another post. In the meantime, here are some basic recommendations.
Before the Selectboard makes a decision, it needs to ask a couple of questions, like:
- Is this what the people of Northfield want?
- Do we have the authority to make this decision? Do we need to look at state policy?
- How have other communities approached this issue?
- What are some legal issues we haven’t thought of? Are there any land mines we might step on?
- Does any board member present a conflict of interest?
I’m sure I’ll learn quite a bit over the next 3 years and I certainly don’t’ feel as if I have all the answers on the subject of local governance. I just think we can do better.
How do you feel about all this?
Are you satisfied with how the deal was struck with Turkey Hill Maple? Do you think the process is adequate, or do you want to see more? What do you think could have been done better? Leave a comment!
As for the specifics regarding the Town Forest and the Turkey Hill Maple contract — if you’re upset, then you need to speak up. Not just to me — to the entire Selectboard.
You can send your thoughts to: firstname.lastname@example.org