Concord — May 7, 2005 — The grassroots group that fueled Howard Dean’s failed presidential run two years ago may launch an ethics probe into donations made to conservative state senators by Club Motorsports Inc., a representative from the group said Thursday.”What we see now is clear deception,” said Chaz Proulx, communications director for Democracy for New Hampshire, outside Senate chambers Thursday morning. “This whole process has been a deception.”
Proulx questions the Senate’s choice to send HB 90 in April to the Transportation Committee, which he said is packed with sponsors of SB 458, the bill HB 90 sought to repeal. This committee last year passed racetrack legislation, SB 458, and Thursday rejected HB 90, the bill that would have repealed it. SB 458 opponents charge it robbed towns statewide of tools to regulate small, practice-style raceways, like the CMI track planned in Tamworth.
“The Transportation Committee is packed with sponsors,” Proulx said. “Including (senators) Clegg, Flanders and Martel. On the surface there is nothing wrong with accepting cash donations and passing legislation,” Proulx said. “If it rises to the level of an ethical violation, we’ll file.”
According to a Nashua Telegraph report, CMI has made a far more substantial and costly lobbying effort than its opponents, citizens group Focus: Tamworth.
“Those seeking to build a controversial driving fitness course in Tamworth have invested heavily in lobbying – $26,094 with the assistance of a six-person team – to fight off House-passed legislation (HB 90) whose aim is to bring such projects under local site plan review. The Manchester law firm of Devine, Millimet is carrying that message, the April 29 report said.”
“The anti-race course group, Focus Tamworth, thus far has spent only $4,518 to enlist the services of the law firm of former Attorney General Tom Rath,” it said.
He said the group may hold a press conference at the State House next week. CMI spokesman Scott Tranchemontage bristled at Proulx’s suggestion that the Derry company funded Senate campaigns outside legal ethics boundaries. “I don’t even want to deny it, I don’t want to give it credence,” Tranchemontagne said Friday. “Any contributions that were made, were fully disclosed and fully within the limits of campaign laws and completely open.”
Tranchemontagne said he had never heard of the group, but said the probe sounded like, “more of the same hypocrisy,” from “partisan Democrat activists.” CMI, he says, has been plagued by a consistent and ongoing smear campaign by opponents, who deserve the same kind of scrutiny. “Why probe us when (local citizens’ group) Focus Tamworth does the same thing?,” he said. “They have professional hired guns, lobbyists from the most powerful lobbying firm in the state.”
Proulx says conservative-leaning members of the Senate have traditionally favored hands-on, town control, over state efforts to meddle in local affairs. The message was far different when the same Senators voted down HB 90 Thursday. And it was different last year, he said, when the group passed SB 458, robbing Tamworth and other towns of some control over small scale-practice racetracks like the facility planned in Tamworth by CMI.
The change of tone, he said, was a tip-off to further investigate donations accepted by legislators. “The tradition in New Hampshire is that these guys have argued in favor of local control,” he said. “Now we see the same senators accepting cash donations from lobbyists and working to undermine local control.”
State Sen. Robert Flanders, (R-Antrim), at the Senate session Thursday declared his full dedication to local control, and blamed Tamworth citizens for letting it slip away. “Nobody in this Senate believes more in local control that I do,” Flanders demanded before 24 Senators, and a like number of members of Focus: Tamworth- the citizens’ group fighting to restore a measure of town rule over the CMI track.
“They have local control,” Flanders said. “They had a Town Meeting and passed a sound ordinance,” adding that all it would have taken to impose greater restrictions, is “a couple of signatures,” he said. “They could have disbanded the thing… it could have been upside down, they could have done anything they wanted to do last March.”
“The town of Tamworth didn’t want to do anything besides pass a sound ordinance,” Flanders said. “Nobody took any power away from anybody.”
State Sen. Joe Kenney, (R-Wakefield), and others flatly disagreed with Flanders Thursday. Kenny made a strong speech for HB 90 and local rule, crediting a last minute discovery with breaking him out of a year of quiet neutrality on the divisive issue. Kenney got a message from selectmen in Dalton, a small town in the White Mountains that Kenney said has a dirt rally track, built by developers years ago. Installation and permitting of the Dalton track, fairly similar to the CMI facility, but smaller and without hotels, Kenney said, was handled completely on the local level.
“They had no zoning, a small New England community in White Mountains,” Kenney said. “That experience was not shared with the legislature,” he said. “That experience with Dalton is not overly unlike what we see going on in Tamworth with CMI.”
“My view really changed a week and a half ago,” Kenney said, when he got Dalton’s letter urging support for HB 90. “Whatever difficulties they had in Dalton, they handled at the local level,” he said. “They handled it right there… probably because the community wanted it.”
Kenney said legislators could have used the Dalton model last year, after he proposed to study possible local impacts of SB 458. “This is one of the those projects we should have learned a lot from,” he said. “The Dalton experience should have been our experience.” His study proposal was rejected by the Senate, and relations between Tamworth and CMI deteriorated, Kenney said. “(The process) ultimately got out of control” he said.
Kenney and other Senators voting in favor of HB 90, chided both sides for letting negotiations break off on the local level, only to have them run over into the legislature, where they said matters only got worse. “Both sides have done their share of over-reaching,” State Sen. Margaret Hassan said. “It creates extreme behavior.”
Kenney called Tamworth’s racetrack ordinance, “a lot restrictive,” and said “that’s where the conflict started.” Hassan, agreed, calling the ordinance “unreasonable,” and blamed its restrictiveness for spurring CMI to seek legislative relief, kicking off a year of bitter conflict.
“It spurred the motor-club company to come to the legislature with an attempt to get around, what in their mind was a very unreasonable prohibition,” Hassan said.
Hassan went on to admit legislators made a further mess of the Tamworth tangle, by setting a seemingly troubling precedent. “I think this bill has taken on life of it s own, and represents something we all have to be cognizant of,” Hassan said. “The perception in the general public is that now a large company with a vested interest, can do end run around the local process.”
“The locality believed it had an agreement with the motor-club organization, before… we signed the bill,” she said. “Everyone agreed, but the rules got changed at last minute.” Hassan echoed Kenney’s praise for the Dalton model, wishing away N.H. Senators’ roles in the local matter. “It is my fervent wish that none of us be in this position, that the parties involved are working constructively to come to an agreement,” she said. “To bring in a facility many in Tamworth want.”
Niether Kenney nor Hassan charges the Senate with wrongdoing, unlike several local representatives behind HB 90, who have accused some senators of flat-out deception. Proulx is investigating whether some conservative senators were influenced by cash donations last year. “If I go through these and I see CMI only donated to sponsors of this bill, and didn’t donate broadly to the wider House and Senate,” Proulx said. “That’s a red flag.”
Thursday’s 14- 10 Senate vote was divided across party lines, with some Democrats and Republicans voting for and against HB 90.
Tranchemontage said the Telegraph’s numbers on Focus seemed low. “We know that because the lobbying effort from Rath, Young and Pignatelli was intense,” he said. “Let’s open the veil on Focus: Tamworth.”
CMI has accused the group of trying to kill the project for years, and has said Focus’s lobbying effort- that the group has called “amateur”- is every bit as professional as is CMI’s.
Focus maintains it is not an anti-track group, only concerned citizen’s allied against the town’s inability to regulate a $28 million development, lost under SB 458. It has said CMI and the company’s persistent lobbying of Senators helped to pass SB 458, and kill HB 90.
After the Senate disappointment in Concord, Focus Spokesperson Charles Greenhalgh thanked area lawmakers who pushed HB 90, and blamed CMI’s influence for its failure. “Our Tamworth Reps Harry Merrow and David Babson, Dover Representative Peter Schmidt, and Judy Silva of the New Hampshire Municipal Association worked hard to convince the Senate to follow the lead of the House, but in the end corporate money and interests won out over the principle of local control. Senator Kenney also spoke in support our town meeting vote to regulate this race tracks,” Greenhalgh said.
Focus also vowed to continue fighting to restore Tamworth’s control over the planned Route 25 track. “We will rely on the Tamworth Noise Ordinance, which passed at Town Meeting in March by a wide margin, to control the most intrusive aspect of the racetrack,” Greenhalgh said in a press release after the vote Thursday evening.