Veit drops conflict of interest charge on cell tower

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer
Paul Veit abruptly withdrew his conflict of interest appeal against Bridgton Planning Board member Michael Figoli at last week’s Board of Appeals meeting, once he heard from Figoli himself.
Figoli, whom Veit had alleged was biased in favor of the application by AT&T and American Towers for a cell tower on Hio Ridge Road, said he has never done work for either company, and said he was upset by the public attack on his integrity.
By that time, however, the appeals board had spent close to an hour on the conflict of interest issue, including an unsuccessful attempt to replay the videotaped meeting at which the charges were made. The board had also decided to recuse one of its members, Greg Jones, because Jones had given his opinion on cell-tower related issues during several meetings. The board also discussed whether another member, Bob Mawhinney, should step away from Veit’s appeal because of a conflict, but decided in the end that Mawhinney could participate.
The appeals board recessed their deliberations until their Nov. 20 meeting to give members time to go over the voluminous paper trail covering the planning board’s exhaustive six-month review of the cell tower project.
While he withdrew his conflict of interest charge, Veit still hopes to convince the appeals board that the planning board did not adequately consider alternative locations for the tower.
Town Attorney Richard Spencer told the board that in order to rule in Veit’s favor, they would need to conclude as well that the planning board acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in approving the project.
Veit defended his decision to raise the conflict of issue charge, saying it was the planning board’s responsibility to disclose at the first meeting if they had any professional involvement with AT&T or American Towers. That was not done, he said, although the neighbors were aware that three of the members were retired from telecommunications-related businesses.
“It is the rule that they provide full disclosure at the first meeting,” said Veit. “We’ve been (at this) for almost a year and we still don’t know if (Figoli) works for AT&T or American Towers.”
Barry Hobbins, who represented the applicants, told the board that the only time the issue came up was at the June 17 meeting. “When it came down to it three months later, no one got up and challenged him,” Hobbins said, referring to Figoli. Hobbins said the neighbors, by not posing a direct challenge at that time, effectively are prevented from raising the issue now.
Judy Veit said the neighbors realized early on that “it was pointless” to argue that there might be bias on the board, because they could see that “it just wasn’t happening.”
Hobbins said case law clearly allows board members to employ their own “competent knowledge” in a particular field in ruling on matters. “A teacher in the Maine Legislature can vote on issues involving teaching,” Hobbins said. He said Figoli “was taking his own personal knowledge” of the subject of cell towers to evaluate the proposal, which is within his right.
“It is extraordinarily important, and if they’d had an attorney they would have known this, that they have to preserve their right” to make a claim of bias, Hobbins said.
But Veit countered, “How do you challenge something that is not revealed?”
At that point, Figoli was allowed to speak up from the audience. “I have never worked for American Towers. I have never worked for AT&T. I am not a tower guy and I have never gained a penny” from either company, he said.
Veit then said, “Based on (Figoli’s) comments, we’re going to drop the concern” about conflict of interest.
Hobbins was clearly exasperated by this turn of events, saying to Board Chairman John Schuettinger, “The same thing happened” during the planning board review, when Veit questioned Hobbins’ integrity and then reversed himself.
“You’ve won the point, and you’d be wise to just drop it,” Schuettinger said.
The board then began addressing Veit’s remaining appeal concerning the adequacy of the planning board’s review. Both Veit and Hobbins were given some time to present opening arguments on the issue of alternative site analysis for the tower. At issue is whether the board adequately addressed Section 7E of the Tower Ordinance, “Investigation of Existing Alternative Towers, Sites and Structures,” to require that no reasonable alternative for adequate coverage was possible.
After a time, Schuettinger asked Hobbins, “Why is AT&T dragging themselves through this knothole over this one tower?”
Hobbins said the company must address “significant gaps in coverage” under its federal license, or risk losing it.

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