A political action committee was formed to combat the recreation governance study committee’s proposal to create a union municipal district for the Essex town and village recreation departments, the latest step in a brewing controversy over the merger.
According to its website, PlanBforEssex.org, the PAC was formed by residents to help voters “parse the issues behind the Dec. 13 ballot.” The PAC says it’s dismayed by the RGSC’s proposal and offers an alternative: consolidate both departments under the town government.
Much of the PAC’s rhetoric mimics that of selectboard member Irene Wrenner, who’s been extremely vocal in her criticism of the plan.
In an interview Friday morning, Wrenner confirmed she’s part of the PAC.
Neither hers nor any other PAC members’ names are published on the website, which an online database shows was created on August 22. Wrenner made clear she’s acting as a resident, and the selectboard is not involved.
She also confirmed John Sheppard, who’s attended a handful of meetings to speak out against the plan, is a PAC member.
Wrenner’s dissent has already stirred emotions among both residents and her fellow board members.
During a selectboard meeting last month, she was heavily criticized for her actions at Essex Middle School during the August primary, during which she handed out fliers and condoms speaking out against the “STD,” or special taxing district, the committee is proposing.
There’s no contact information on the website besides the email address email@example.com. Wrenner pointed to last month’s backlash as motivation for this.
“I would rather be transparent, but if people want to not see my name, then we will not see my name or anybody else’s,” Wrenner said.
The website creator took additional steps to ensure the members’ identities wouldn’t be public. A public database of domain registrations showed PlanBforEssex.org is registered to a company called Perfect Privacy LLC, which shields website creators’ personal information by replacing it with its own.
The company recently made national headlines after multiple outlets reported presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s private email server changed its domain registration to Perfect Privacy in 2014 after she stepped down as secretary of state.
The PAC goes beyond offering an alternative, however, by claiming the decision was inevitable, the result of “successful coercion.”
It asserts a committee member who didn’t initially support the union municipal option was told the June 1 meeting – when the committee voted on its final decision – wouldn’t adjourn until a consensus was reached.
“To some, that would appear to be a bullying tactic,” the website reads.
Study committee chairman Michael Smith said while the goal was to reach consensus, no one was pressured to change their opinion.
“I wouldn’t have kept the meeting going all night long to reach consensus,” he said. Opinions were changed through “open” and “meaningful” discussion, he added.
The PAC also calls into question how the study committee was formed.
The selectboard, village trustees and prudential committee, the latter which currently oversees Essex Jct. Parks and Recreation, voted to form the committee on February 16 during a special meeting.
The PAC accuses EJRP director Brad Luck of withholding information during that meeting, including the existence of statute authorizing the committee to make a decision without approval from the three boards.
In doing so, the PAC argues, Luck planted the seed for a union municipal district knowing it would “determine his future job prospects.”
According to the recreation’s district’s agreement, the new governing board will appoint an executive director of parks and recreation and set the position’s salary and benefits.
“RGSC capably played the hand they were given, but all were playing with a stacked deck,” the website reads.
Reached Friday afternoon, Luck said he’s aware of the PAC and its claims but declined to respond to the allegations, saying he’s “not willing to contribute to any public discourse that isn’t about the issue that’s being discussed.
“All of our efforts should be on having a positive public discussion about the future of recreation in Essex Jct.,” he continued.
Smith said the committee doesn’t believe Luck influenced its decision in any way, and said a new elected board would vet Luck and any other candidates for the position.
“In the end, this committee will have no influence on Brad’s employment,” Smith said.
In fact, if Luck were trying to influence his future employment, the status quo would make most sense, Smith said.
Wrenner believes the coercion extends beyond Luck, however, declaring there’s more “power and money at stake” than when the municipalities’ finance and highway departments merged.
“We have to look really deep to say what is the problem merging under town hall … who stands to lose?” she said.
Dozens of people are involved now in the PAC, and more join by the day, she added.
The website asks people to get in touch who have “hours or dollars” to donate. The donation link is not live yet.
Any PAC that raises $1,000 or spends $1,000 within any two-year general election cycle must register and file all regularly required disclosure reports with the secretary of state.
Wrenner said the PAC set up a bank account “so we have a paper trail.” The PAC hasn’t hit $1,000 yet, she added.
She expects the funds to be used to launch a campaign against the proposal, including fliers and maintaining the website.