The Long Con of Rocklandia
How dirty politics and dirty energy nearly tarnished the Jewel of the Midcoast
by Judith Lawson
I was a writer for the Washington Post in the early 1970s, when my colleagues at the paper broke the Watergate scandal that forced President Nixon to resign and opened America’s eyes to the corruption rotting out the core of our democracy. My beat was the outdoors, not politics, but my seven-year stint at the Post gave me a front-row seat to an epic battle between the press and the powerful.
Four decades later, I watched in horror and disbelief as the forces of greed and graft tore through the civic fabric of the tiny but tight-knit community of Rockland, Maine. Now it’s my turn to tell the tale.
I moved to the St. George peninsula just south of Rockland in 1981 to have the Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding Company make me a sailboat for a single-handed race around the world. I was an instructor at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in those days, and have spent the following years living the nomadic life of a professional sailor and freelance writer.
Since 2006, my teaching and writing have focused on the twin issues of climate change and clean energy. So I was especially alarmed when, in the spring of last year, I returned to Rockland from South America to find the town in the clutches of a 22-year-old confidence man trying to literally buy City Hall and replace it with a natural-gas-fired power plant.
I’ve titled this story “The Long Con of Rocklandia,” but the lessons here are applicable to communities throughout Maine, and Rockland’s situation reflects the predicament we as a nation now face as a con man named Donald Trump goose-steps his way toward the White House.
For a con like this to work, several elements must be in place, including economic desperation, a secretive and corruptible government, a willingness to ignore scientific fact, and a populace and press too stressed and distracted to pay attention. The Long Con of Rocklandia failed only because that last element — a “vocal minority” of citizens, of which I was a proud member, and a punk-rock cartoonist who writes for a free weekly newspaper — did pay attention and refused to play along.
Rockland is officially designated as a city, but with only about 7,200 souls inhabiting its 15 square miles, it’s really a small town. And like small towns throughout America, Rockland is staggering under the burdens of high taxes, underfunded schools, poverty, civic apathy and drug addiction. Globalization undermined the industries that built the city’s economic foundation, leaving us with a so-called “service economy,” which is a polite way of saying the poor work as servants for the rich.
Still, the good citizens of Rocklandia have endeavored with diligence, grace and wise investment to preserve its blue-collar charm while welcoming the wealthy and worldly. The new boutique hotel downtown describes itself online as “a luxury yacht on Main St,” yet boasts of its “reclaimed … and industrial décor.” The views from the top of this sleek five-story structure are gobsmacking. I also recommend you stop by the Myrtle Street Tavern, where the sign proudly declares: “Cocktails & Oddities Since 1897.”
Rockland maintains a working waterfront occupied by fishing and lobster vessels, boat yards and boat builders. But the loss of manufacturing jobs — compounded by the consequences of overfishing and the warming of the Gulf of Maine — have been hollowing out the local economy for decades.
In its struggle to provide the same services with less money, Rockland’s government has raised property taxes and consolidated or privatized formerly public functions. For example, the city abolished its Recreation Department last year and handed those programs off to a privately operated nonprofit, the Penobscot Bay YMCA, in a desperate effort to save a relatively small amount of cash.
Maine’s tyrannical Tea Party governor, Paul LePage, has only made a bad situation worse. Reductions in state education aid and the revenue-sharing arrangement between the state and its municipalities have strangled the local school budget and led to tax hikes and job cuts in Rockland. In 2013, the loss of $280,000 in shared revenue compelled the City Council to ax four jobs, including an EMT/paramedic and a police officer position.
Rockland does have one card up its sleeve that it can play to improve the crummy hand it’s been dealt: tourism. The city’s gorgeous deep-water harbor, sheltered by a breakwater, attracts swarms of yachters and other recreational boaters, as well as cruise ships and a small fleet of Maine’s famous windjammers. The recently completed five-mile Harbor Trail draws landlubbers to the water’s edge. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art relocated from Rockport to Rockland this year, where it joined the Farnsworth Art Museum and a vibrant gallery scene downtown. Connoisseurs who show up for the city’s monthly artwalks can drink and dine at a number of fancy new restaurants.
And then there are the three big summer festivals: the North Atlantic Blues Festival, held in July; the Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Show, which takes place this month; and the Maine Lobster Festival, also in August, which brings tens of thousands of people to town.
Tourism is a financial boon to Rockland, but it’s no cure for the community’s economic malaise. It’s seasonal — not the sort of industry that sustains many full-time, year-round jobs. And Census data indicates Rockland’s popularity has not created prosperity. The median household income in the city (measured in 2014 dollars) is $41,095, well below the state median of $48,804.
Also consider the fact that every tax dollar collected in Rockland by the sale of trinkets, t-shirts, lobsters and lodging goes directly into the state’s coffers in Augusta. LePage and state lawmakers decide how much of that money is shared with the townspeople who worked to generate it, and as I just noted, that sum has been shrinking.
Wonderful as it is to have the Farnsworth Art Museum and the CMCA in Rockland, both are nonprofits that pay no property tax. Rents in newly trendy Rocklandia have been on the rise, exacerbated by the recent Airbnb craze. It’s estimated that upwards of 100 rental units are now being reserved for those visitors, further squeezing an already strained housing stock.
So, though Rockland can play its tourism card, that card ain’t an ace. I’d say it’s more like a jack, maybe even a 10.
Because Maine’s tax system makes municipalities overly reliant on property taxes to fund local government, our communities are ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous developers and shady pitchmen, like the kid that came to town in April of last year, whose talk of building a $200 million gas-fired power plant turned out to be a lot of hot air.
Secretive and corruptible government
Since 2009, the entrance to the Rockland City Manager’s office has been a revolving door. Seven people have held the job in the past seven years, and the city is currently fishing for an eighth.
Former Finance Director Tom Luttrell served two stints as interim city manager during this period, and was said to have been interested in formally taking the position. But in the summer of 2014 the political winds favored the idea of hiring an outsider, a manager who’d fundamentally change the culture of city government, which some felt had become too complacent, too deferential to the old ways of doing things.
So cash-strapped Rockland spent $17,000 to hire Rick Dacri, a recruiter with the Kennebunk firm Dacri & Associates, to help the five-member City Council find fresh blood. What resulted was more like a massacre.
As recounted in a lengthy article published by the weekly Free Press this past February, Dacri won over city officials two years ago by decrying what he called the “entitlement mentality” of people who’ve spent years in public service. What local governments need is a “performance-based culture,” he said.
“Merit always trumps longevity,” Dacri wrote in a blog post quoted by the paper. “Cultural change is never easy and it is often painful,” he continued, but “[w]hile it may be difficult to change behaviors and attitudes once they become the norm, strong leadership can make it happen. The effectiveness of town government, in an era of high resident expectations on bare-bones budgets, rests on the shoulders of its leadership and workforce.”
Dacri’s headhunt eventually led to the hiring, in early 2015, of an ex-Marine named James Chaousis. His starting salary was $92,000.
Free Press reporter Andy O’Brien noted in his article that Chaousis was hired in 2009 to run the town of Livermore Falls despite the fact he had no college degree or prior experience in municipal management at that level. His tenure there was brief — about a year and six months — and, at times, rocky.
One notable example: in June of 2010 Chaousis reportedly “came flying out of the town office” and accused several townspeople nearby of having snuck into his office and stolen his wallet. “I was shocked by his anger,” one resident told the Lewiston Sun Journal. “I don’t appreciate being called a thief,” said another. Chaousis apologized (he said his newborn daughter had made him sleepless and irritable) and though police forwarded a formal complaint about the outburst to the Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office, no charge was pursued.
In the fall of that year Chaousis reportedly suspended the town’s long-serving police chief (for reasons that were never publicly disclosed), and a month later Chaousis left Livermore Falls to become the town manager in Boothbay, at a salary of $60,000. The Sun Journal, citing Chaousis’ letter of resignation, reported that he’d been worried his job in Livermore Falls was “in jeopardy” after a resident made a motion to slash the size of his raise from 18 percent to 2 percent. Chaousis reportedly had proposed to cut half a million bucks from the little town’s budget that year in an attempt to make up for money lost when the local paper mill closed in 2009.
Chaousis maintained good relations with the selectmen in Boothbay for the first few years of his tenure there, but according to news reports cited by the Free Press, that support eventually frayed and negotiations to extend Chaousis’ contract “fell apart” shortly before he landed the Rockland job in January 2015.
Six months later, in June of last year, the Boothbay selectmen publicly demanded that Chaousis reimburse the town for having used public funds to pay his family’s personal cell phone bills, a practice they alleged Chaousis engaged in from 2011 until March of 2015. In December, the International City/County Management Association, a professional organization that sets guidelines for ethical practices, censured Chaousis for misusing that public money and waiting half a year after he supposedly discovered the “mistake” (as Chaousis called it) to acknowledge it and agree to repay the town. The organization said Chaousis “willfully concealed the information from Boothbay officials in order to avoid jeopardizing his upcoming employment in Rockland,” according to the Free Press.
The drama that’s rocked Rockland City Hall since Chaousis was hired could power the plot of a telenovela and is much too convoluted to delve into here. The unprecedented wave of resignations and forced ousters continues to this day. Suffice it to say that when the city attorney (former Portland Planning Board chairman Kevin Beal) has to hire an attorney to defend his job, the shark has been jumped. (Beal resigned last month after Chaousis, who submitted his own resignation the week before, urged the City Council to either fire Beal or start negotiating his own separation package.)
The Long Con of Rocklandia officially began on April 3, 2015, when a 22-year-old from Montville named Evan Coleman, purporting to represent a limited-liability company called Rockland Energy Center, met privately with city officials to pitch a bold plan. Coleman said he and his backers, the Boston-based company Energy Management, Inc., intended to spend $200 million to build a 76-megawatt natural-gas plant (also dubbed Rockland Energy Center) that would provide electricity to the regional power grid and generate steam that could be used to heat industrial buildings nearby — like the facility operated by FMC Corporation, a seaweed processor that is Rockland’s largest taxpayer and one of its biggest employers.
The site Coleman had in mind: 18 acres of public property off Pleasant Street that includes Rockland City Hall and public works operations.
The City Council held a closed-door meeting on April 13 to discuss the proposal, and voted two days later to solicit bids for the 18-acre parcel. “Real estate agents were contacted and a public notice was published in the [Bangor Daily News],” according to BDN reporter Steve Betts. The result of the bidding process was revealed on April 27.
It’s worth considering that if you were a developer or the head of a company large enough to put those 18 acres to profitable use, this process would have allowed you approximately 12 days (including eight or nine “business days”) to put together a competitive proposal for this prime piece of public land — assuming you were aware of its availability on April 15. Unsurprisingly, Rockland Energy’s bid was the only one in the envelope.
Rockland Energy proposed to pay $1,550,000 for the property, and Coleman suggested his company could chip in to help defray the cost of relocating the offices of City Hall and public works operations. An alternative site for those critical government functions was never identified.
On the evening of Wednesday, April 29, the City Council met to vote on whether to give Rockland Energy an option to buy the property. The BDN reported that over a dozen residents showed up to oppose the project, voicing concerns about the environmental impact of natural gas and the safety of gas-fired power plants, as well as objections to the hasty way the process was moving forward.
Councilor Valli Geiger was unswayed by those concerns. “She said Rockland has a crumbling infrastructure and failing schools along with a rapidly rising tax rate,” Betts reported. And she took offense to the public’s criticism of the process. “I’m disappointed that we are called idiots and are somehow doing something nefarious,” she said.
In fact, unelected city officials had been engaged in nefarious behavior earlier that week. In response to a Freedom of Access Act request filed last year by the group Friends of Penobscot Bay, a series of e-mails came to light showing that Chaousis and Audra Caler-Bell, then Rockland’s Economic Development Director, were promoting the gas-plant project to business leaders and other big wigs using a form letter written and provided by Coleman. The goal was to convince influential people in the community to apply political pressure to the City Council in support of Rockland Energy’s bid.
As the Free Press reported last winter, Coleman sent an e-mail to Caler-Bell on April 28, 2015 (the day before the first public meeting), that “included talking points and instructed Caler-Bell to ‘slightly modify each letter so it does not look like a “form letter.”’ … [T]he more personal and unique the letters are, the greater the support they have,” he wrote. “Our goal is to really just not have the letters look like we crafted them.” Later that same day, Caler-Bell sent a draft of one of her personalized letters to Chaousis, “noting that she had ‘tried to pull on the heart strings,’” according to the weekly paper.
Tried to pull on the heart strings. Let’s step back and ponder this for a moment. The economic development director of a city, taking orders via e-mail from a guy barely old enough to legally drink a beer, is embellishing his form letter with emotional appeals (trying to elicit pity for the poor city, one supposes) in an attempt to conceal the letter’s true source and convince influential people to support his $200 million fossil-fuel project. City Manager Chaousis is fully aware of, and complicit in, this deception.
In a “performance-based culture,” one assumes a public employee who uses her official position to advance, by dishonest methods, the financial interests of a company trying to buy public property gets fired on the spot and then referred to the D.A. for potential indictment. In Rocklandia, she gets promoted six months later to Assistant City Manager, a position Caler-Bell held until this spring, when she assumed the title of Acting City Manager after Chaousis went on medical leave to undergo brain surgery. Rather than being charged with a crime, Caler-Bell is now in charge of Rockland.
The vote that Wednesday night was 2-1 in favor of granting Rockland Energy the option to buy the property, but three affirmative votes were required for passage (two councilors were absent), so the motion failed. Undeterred, the City Council convened again a day and a half later for an unusual Friday morning meeting, and this time the vote was 4-0 (with one councilor absent) in favor of giving the company the option to buy the land.
By the BDN’s estimate, “70 people packed City Hall” that morning and the 9 a.m. meeting lasted until nearly noon. Neither Coleman nor anyone else associated with Rockland Energy’s bid had bothered to show up or speak at the Wednesday night meeting (a “fact sheet” provided by the company was passed around instead), but on Friday the citizens of Rocklandia got their first glimpse of Coleman’s boyish face.
Once again, over a dozen residents spoke out against the project and the process, though this time a few citizens voiced support for granting the option, on grounds that doing so would allow more time to study the proposal while continuing to negotiate its terms. The option that was approved required Rockland Energy to pay the city $1,000 per month while those negotiations took place, and the final sale would have to be approved by city voters at the polls.
Coleman’s pitch was predictable: the plant would provide Rockland with property tax revenue, as well as construction jobs and a dozen or so permanent positions paying over $60,000, plus cheap steam that could save other industries money on their heating bills.
Granted, there were a few hurdles to overcome, like approval by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to sell electricity on the grid. The need to meet a PUC deadline for that approval was presented by Coleman as the reason negotiations had to be put on a fast-track, though even a cursory inquiry with state officials would have proven that assertion false.
Oh, and there was also the fact Rockland Energy would need a pipeline to deliver the natural gas to its power plant. The closest pipeline was said to be the one that runs through Windsor, about 35 miles away, and Coleman estimated it would cost between $13 million and $20 million to extend that line to Rockland — though, as the BDN noted, “that would be done by a different company.”
Who would pay for that pipeline spur? Like most of Coleman’s proposal, that little detail was never fleshed out, but the most likely answer is you, and me, and everyone else in Maine who writes a check to the electric company every month.
That’s because the Maine Legislature passed a law in 2013 called the Energy Cost Reduction Act (ECRA). ECRA directs the PUC to explore ways to increase the supply of natural gas in Maine when doing so is likely to lower consumers’ energy bills. One of the ways to increase supply is to expand pipelines. Under ECRA, a case could be made that public money would be well spent to extend a pipeline to Rockland and other midcoast communities. That money would come from a surcharge on your electric bill. ECRA authorizes the PUC to raise and spend up to $75 million per year, for up to 20 years, to put more natural gas on the market — a public subsidy for the fossil-fuel industry that’s potentially worth $1.5 billion.
(Another way to increase supply under ECRA is for the state to subsidize facilities that store liquefied natural gas [LNG]. That LNG could be delivered to utilities in the winter, when the use and price of natural gas are both high, to help keep costs from “spiking” during cold snaps. In addition to the Rockland gas-plant proposal, Coleman has been part of an effort to build a $100 million LNG facility in Rumford, the Free Press reported. He testified last year before a legislative committee in favor of a bill to subsidize LNG storage. Gov. LePage signed that bill into law last April. And last month, the three commissioners LePage appointed to the PUC voted unanimously — against the recommendation of PUC staff — to pursue pipeline expansion subsidized with your money.)
Ignoring scientific fact
Energy policy can be complicated, but the simple fact is that burning fossil fuels causes global warming and both speeds and worsens the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Most climate scientists, as well as activists like Bill McKibben (of 350.org), tell us the only way to avoid a climactic apocalypse is to drastically reduce, and ultimately end, our dependence on fossil fuels like natural gas.
While it’s true that burning natural gas is a “cleaner” process than burning oil or coal, the gas industry as a whole poses a larger threat to life on this planet. A widely cited report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), titled “Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas,” explains that though gas burned in new power plants emits about half as much carbon dioxide as a coal plant, measures like that “do not tell the full story.”
Methane, a primary component of natural gas, is “34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year period and 86 times stronger over 20 years,” the USC reports. The methane that leaks out when natural gas is extracted (by drilling or fracking) and transported through pipelines can quickly reach levels that make the global-warming impact of gas plants worse than that of coal-fired plants over their respective “life cycles.” Rockland Energy Center was expected to operate for 50 years.
Such comparisons aside, the bottom line is that we must stop burning fossil fuels of any kind and transition to renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, while investing in energy efficiency. In Maine, the $1.5 billion of public money the PUC is prepared to spend just to potentially lower the price of natural gas in the coming decades would obviously be more wisely spent fostering that transition.
But in Rocklandia, a city so starved of revenue that it’s firing first responders, the prospect of collecting more property tax money is enough to blind public officials to the big picture. And once Coleman dangled his dirty carrot in front of us, the possibility he could take it away seemed like more than a lost opportunity — it became a threat.
During the Friday morning meeting, Coleman made it clear that his company was ready to ditch Rockland if the purchase option wasn’t granted that day. “Capital goes where capital is wanted,” he told the audience.
Oh, Evan, if only that were true, then the people of Rocklandia would already be rich!
The fate of Coleman’s proposal was inextricably tied to the fate of the city officials who promoted it (explicitly and otherwise). So as faith in Rockland’s government shattered during the fractious months that followed Chaousis’ arrival, so too did the prospects of Coleman’s gas-plant project.
City officials took a series of expensive — and, at times, Orwellian —steps in the summer and fall of 2015 to try to maintain control. One of those steps was the hiring of a human resources consultant, a former bank executive named Laurie Bouchard, to advise them on personnel matters. The BDN reported that Bouchard’s hourly rate was $150 per hour for “on-site work” and $75 per hour for work done “remotely.”
Last October, Bouchard worked with city councilors to craft a “vision statement” for Rockland. She asked them to make lists of the city’s “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.” One of the perceived weaknesses was a “small group of local citizenry continually trying to disrupt progress with fear-mongering that everything is a cover up,” the BDN reported. Another was, “Often times poor representation from local press outlets.”
The draft version of the vision statement looked ahead to “June 30, 2018,” when “the City of Rockland will be known as a place where public officials, private citizens and the press work together, with optimism, trust and collaboration, to create and promote the region’s unique assets and quality of life.” For the record, when the press “works together” with government officials to influence public opinion, that’s called propaganda, not journalism.
The vision statement “was met with withering public criticism once the disparaging comments made during the session about local activists, city employees and the press came to light,” O’Brien wrote in the Free Press, and it “was later allowed to die.”
Chaousis’ promotion of Caler-Bell to be his assistant manager in October was justified as being necessary to “position the City in a positive light,” he said at the time (“public relations” was part of her new job description). He also unveiled a policy to make all city employees “speak with one voice” to the media. Other public-relations efforts reported by the Free Press include an $18,000 contract to redevelop the city’s website “to improve communication and transparency,” and the hiring of Naretiv, a Camden firm that provides “branding, messaging, PR, design, social media, crisis management, and interview prep.”
Ultimately, the people and the press saw through the Long Con and took action to end it.
The first blow was the election last November of political newcomer Bill Jillson, who beat incumbent Mayor Frank Isganitis, a supporter of the gas-plant plan, by about 50 votes. “Jillson said on election night that he was surprised by his victory,” Betts reported in the BDN. “He had sharply criticized the council and City Manager James Chaousis during his run for office, referring to the municipal government as a dictatorship.”
The first big item on Jillson’s agenda: enacting a six-month moratorium on any new power plants.
On Dec. 14, 2015, the City Council took an initial vote on the moratorium ordinance and kept it alive by the tally of 3-2. (A final vote was scheduled for January.) Three days later, that week’s edition of the Free Press came out, featuring a lengthy article about Coleman written by O’Brien.
O’Brien, the former frontman of a punk band called The Deported who’s also half of the animation team O’Chang Comics [the pair was profiled in these pages two years ago; see “Maine’s Midcoast South Park,” Aug. 2014], did what city officials had neglected to even attempt: He looked into Coleman’s background to find out if the claims he’d been making were true.
Let’s put it this way: Coleman is either a stranger to the truth, or he’s had the remarkable misfortune of doing business with dishonest people everywhere he’s gone in the past three years.
One of the first things O’Brien’s exposé revealed was that Rockland Energy had not made any of the $1,000 monthly payments to the city required by the purchase option they signed. Those payments were supposed to have begun on Aug. 1. Chaousis said the city hadn’t even invoiced Coleman’s company to request payment. He blamed the “delay” (then over four months long) on turnover in the finance department.
Based on Coleman’s assertions, it was understood all along that Rockland Energy Center LLC was representing Energy Management Inc., the Boston firm that’s developed a half dozen gas-fired power plants, including a big one in Rumford. The BDN reported, for example, that Rockland Energy is “owned by the principals of Energy Management Inc.”
O’Brien tried, in vain, for seven months to get comment from EMI about the Rockland project. When they finally did respond last December, EMI treasurer Mitch Jacobs wrote, via e-mail, that Coleman “represents Clear Energy LLC, not Energy Management Inc.”
O’Brien reported in the December article that Coleman “said last week that he is an employee of EMI and works out of the company’s Boston office when he’s not in Maine.” Then O’Brien added, “Coleman said Wednesday [of the week the article appeared] that he never claimed to be an employee of EMI.”
Clear Energy, which Coleman described as a “personal holding company for my assets,” was “presented” by Coleman as a company based in Marlborough, Mass., but it’s actually registered in Montville, Maine. “Coleman rents a mailbox at an office center in Marlborough, which he says he only uses for his legal filings,” O’Brien wrote. Coleman said Rockland Energy Center LLC was registered in Delaware, but when O’Brien searched that state’s Division of Corporations database, there was no record of it.
Coleman claimed that at age 19, during his freshman year at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass., he “founded a separate division of his company United Energy, LLC,” which had previously been in the recycling and compost business. This new division of United Energy — which Coleman claimed was also registered in Delaware, but no evidence of that was found either — supposedly trucked compressed natural gas (CNG) to industrial customers in the U.S. and Canada.
In a statement sent to the Free Press, Coleman claimed his CNG business earned $11 million in revenue in its first six months, and he then sold it to a Boston-based company called Xpress Natural Gas. “XNG did not buy any company or entity from Mr. Coleman,” XNG spokesman Matt Smith told O’Brien. Smith did confirm that Coleman worked for XNG for about six months, but said, “the circumstances of his departure are confidential.”
“That kid is just going to tell stories and nobody can do anything about it,” another former business associate said.
By this point, the original 76-megawatt-plant proposal had been scaled down, in Coleman’s telling, to 25 or 35 megawatts. The pipeline was going to run from Searsmont, not Windsor. And Rockland Energy didn’t need the City Hall property after all — it had its eyes on a parcel of privately owned land in Rockland, or somewhere else, etc.
The moratorium passed in January despite the protestations of groups like the Rockland Professional Fire Fighters, who wrote an open letter in December expressing concern that Coleman had “stated in no uncertain terms” that he would seek to build the plant “outside Rockland’s borders” if the moratorium were approved. Fireman and union president Chris Whytock compared Coleman’s project to a Walmart Supercenter in nearby Thomaston, which was built there after locals opposed Walmart’s plans to expand in Rockland.
“If you are taking note of the new ‘Super Center,’ then also picture an energy plant right beside it,” Whytock wrote. “There is plenty of land in Thomaston, and they are a town that will welcome money spent on infrastructure and numerous other upgrades, all of which Rockland will lose out on again.”
In March, Jillson quit the City Council, four months into his three-year term. In his letter of resignation, he wrote that he couldn’t work with Chaousis, a manager who “couldn’t make a good decision if it was the only one in front of him,” and refused to play along with the majority of his fellow councilors, stating, “I will not compromise my opinions or integrity to merely agree.”
The moratorium Jillson championed expired last month, but the city now has zoning regulations and other measures in place, which it crafted during the interim, intended to limit or prevent the negative impacts of any future power-plant project. There are rumors that Coleman is still sniffing around local businesses looking for support for something, but no new proposal from Rockland Energy has surfaced.
Rockland’s City Council seems to have learned a hard lesson. In remarks to the Free Press last month, Adam Ackor, who was elected in June to fill Jillson’s seat, criticized the “culture of secrecy” that still pervades City Hall and vowed to change it.
Councilor Geiger, who’d earlier decried residents’ suspicions that “something nefarious” was afoot, now realizes the citizens were right all along. To cite yet another example of Chaousis’ perfidy, the city manager told the press and the public — including city councilors who were his bosses — that city officials had not had any interactions with Coleman or EMI last summer. As Geiger later learned, “the city had been secretly meeting with the developers without her knowledge,” O’Brien wrote last month.
My fondest hope is that this cautionary tale will inspire Rockland and other vulnerable towns to think bigger, bolder and be true to the will of the people.
Bollard editor Chris Busby contributed reporting. Judith Lawson would like to thank the many people who have helped her understand how and why this predation happened, with special thanks to Jane Mayer, of The New Yorker, and Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org.