SKOWHEGAN — A Somerset County commissioner who also sits on the board of a nonprofit that stands to benefit from a controversial transmission line project is resigning from the board over conflict of interest concerns.

Lloyd Trafton, the county’s District 5 commissioner, has a jurisdiction that includes the unorganized territory and other parts of Somerset County where the New England Clean Energy Connect project would cut a new corridor for a Quebec-to-Massachusetts power line.

He also sits on the board of directors for Western Mountains & Rivers Corp., a nonprofit that negotiated a $22 million environmental benefits package from Central Maine Power in exchange for supporting the project.

Trafton has received backlash from opponents of NECEC over his role in interviewing candidates to represent Somerset County on the Land Use Planning Commission, which will play a key role in issuing permits for the project.

He has denied there is any conflict of interest associated with holding the two positions.

He did not respond Thursday to phone calls or an email seeking comment, but he later sent an email to Russell Walters, president of Western Mountains & Rivers, submitting his resignation from that board.

The email was shown to the Morning Sentinel by Somerset County Administrator Dawn DiBlasi, who said the county has checked with its attorney and confirmed there is no conflict of interest for Trafton because, she said, he does not benefit personally from sitting on the nonprofit’s board.

In his email to Walters, Trafton said he was resigning because of the conflict of interest complaints.

“As we all know, there is no conflict of interest, but the complaints are causing too much involvement for our staff at the Commissioner’s office,” he wrote. “It has been a pleasure to work with the members of the committee, and I thank you for the opportunity to serve on your committee.”

Walters said in an email Friday that he has been traveling and would not be available to comment until Monday. Trafton also did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Before Trafton’s resignation from the board, members of the opposition group Say NO to NECEC had planned to bring their concerns to a county commissioners meeting Wednesday. Director Sandra Howard said Friday they still plan to do so.

In an email, Howard said the group is pleased with Trafton’s decision to step down from the board, but “there remains a continuing conflict of interest associated with his authority as a Somerset County Commissioner.”

“Commissioner Trafton’s bias has resulted in a widespread distrust of his actions as a county commissioner, which have lacked transparency and fairness in his communication to residents,” she said.” There is a strong sentiment among his constituents that he acted without communicating or acknowledging his constituents’ views on the corridor project.”

LUPC INTERVIEW

In April, opponents of NECEC filed a complaint with the Maine Attorney General’s Office raising concerns about a conflict of interest.

It included a statement from a woman who interviewed for the seat on the LUPC and said she was pressured by Trafton to answer questions about whether she supported the project.

Howard gave a copy of the complaint to the Morning Sentinel this week.

The Attorney General’s Office had forwarded it to the county to deal with in its human resources department.

Approval from the LUPC is one of the final steps in permitting the controversial NECEC project, which would build 145 miles of new transmission line from Quebec to Lewiston to bring hydropower to Massachusetts.

Lloyd Trafton is Somerset County Commissioner for District 5. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The complaint, filed by Elizabeth Boepple, an attorney for members of Say NO to NECEC, accused Trafton of a conflict of interest by using his position as a county commissioner to “1) further the position of the Western Mountains and Rivers Corporation (WMRC) in relation to the application of NECEC to the LUPC, and 2.) stack the deck in favor of the NECEC project with a biased commissioner.”

In the complaint, Susan Hathaway, a candidate for the LUPC seat, wrote she was “dumbfounded and puzzled by having to answer a political question during an interview.”

“I was very uncomfortable as I had no idea exactly what Lloyd wanted from me, but it was very clear that he wanted a definitive answer and he would not let up until I gave him one,” she wrote.

After she tried to skirt the question, Hathaway said in an interview, she eventually said she did not support the project.

She was then told by Trafton that he “had heard enough,” the complaint says. He conferred with the two other commissioners conducting the interview, Robert Sezak and Newell Graf, and they said they had no more questions.

Hathaway, who lives in The Forks and is the code enforcement officer in Embden, said she couldn’t say whether her answer cost her the position.

The candidate who ended up getting the job, Gwen Hilton of Starks, previously served on the commission from 2005 to 2017 and was “very qualified,” she said.

“My main objective (of the complaint) is not that I didn’t get hired; it’s that he was in a position to influence (the LUPC vote) one way or another, and he took advantage of that,” Hathaway said. “That’s wrong.”

Hilton said she was also asked in her interview whether she supported the project and did not answer.

“My response was that I couldn’t answer that question because it would show I have some sort of bias, and I cannot legitimately go in and vote on that project as a commissioner on the LUPC with any kind of public bias,” she said.

WHAT MAKES A CONFLICT? 

In her email Friday, DiBlasi said a conflict of interest exists when a person stands to benefit personally.

“In this instance, Commissioner Trafton sat on a Board that does not compete with his duties as a Commissioner and he does not profit personally from the Board position,” she wrote. “Commissioner Trafton is not an ‘organization’ and he has no ownership of the ‘organization’ so there is no personal financial gain as there is no payment for his sitting on the Board.”

However, Boepple, the attorney for the opponents, said Maine law recognizes a much broader conflict of interest than just personal gain.

“Use of power to obtain a benefit for another even without personal gain can rise to the level of a conflict of interest,” she said.

As opponents lauded Trafton’s resignation from the board of Western Mountains & Rivers, some also said the county commissioners need to take further action to address the conflict and listen to residents.

“To date, no towns in northern Somerset county, located in Commissioner Trafton’s district, support the CMP corridor, and residents from these areas are demanding that county leaders represent their voices on this matter,” Howard said.

She said residents and opponents of the NECEC still plan to attend the county commissioners meeting Wednesday to speak about concerns regarding Trafton and ask commissioners to take another vote  after previously voting to support the project.

In December, Trafton participated in a vote by the commission on whether to continue to support the project. They voted 3-2 to maintain support.

As more information about the project has come to light over the last year, several communities along its corridor have taken similar votes, many rescinding support after voting previously to back the project.

Asked why he did not feel a need to recuse himself from the vote at the December meeting, Trafton, who voted to continue to support the project, denied a conflict of interest, saying he “receives nothing” for being on the board.

“I haven’t participated in any decision-making (for Western Mountains & Rivers),” he said. “The group is still being formatted.”

The county commission also approved taking no further action on the NECEC project after a motion from Trafton, who said he wanted to see the issue “put to bed.”


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