Former Fryeburg Planner giving advice to Nestlé

Former Fryeburg planner giving advice to Poland Spring:
E-mail links Bergoffen to international bottler

By Casey Conley, Conway Daily Sun, June 12, 2008

(Fryeburg) — An e-mail message obtained by The Conway Daily Sun shows that former planning board chairman Gene Bergoffen, who resigned last fall amid allegations that he was biased toward Poland Spring’s plan to build a trucking station in East Conway, is currently helping the international bottler with its public relations.

In the e-mail, Poland Spring natural resource manager Mark Dubois asks “Chip” for his opinion on information supplied by Bergoffen to be used in a letter to the editor challenging assertions made by Howard Dearborn that large-scale water extraction is adversely affecting Lovewell Pond.

“Chip, this is from Gene Bergoffen materials — it sounds okay to me but we need to fact check — this can be deleted if needed,” the e-mail reads. Chip Ahrens is an attorney for Poland Spring. Bergoffen confirmed he communicates with Poland Spring, a subsidiary of Nestle Waters North America, but insists that the relationship started after he left the planning board.

“After I was off board, in a period of time, I did have conversations with Poland Spring personnel,” Bergoffen said.

Bergoffen, a former Washington, D.C. lobbyist and trucking industry consultant, served on the planning board in 2005 when a trucking station terminal for Poland Spring in East Fryeburg was approved by the planning board.

On the night the trucking facility was approved, Bergoffen presented a 16-page opinion favoring the project. Rumors, none of which could be substantiated, immediately began circulating that Bergoffen was biased or had been coached.

Following an appeal to Maine Superior Court, the case was remanded back to the planning board for reconsideration during the fall of 2007. Bergoffen, who by then was chairman of the planning board, resigned from the board in October 2007 — one month before the appeal was to begin — amid a clamor over his former relationship to the trucking industry. A month later, in November 2007, the planning board voted against the trucking facility by a 3-1 vote. In January 2008 the board of appeals also voted against the proposed facility. Poland Spring appealed the rulings in March.

In another passage in the e-mail, Bergoffen is again mentioned. “Chip, this is from Gene Bergoffen — we have no facts to support this as far as I know — this should be deleted if we can’t substantiate,” the e-mail said. The e-mail does not suggest there was communication between Bergoffen and Poland Spring during Bergoffen’s time on the planning board, nor that he was ever compensated by Poland Spring.

Regardless when the relationship started, however, it was clear from interviews with Bergoffen and Dubois that neither is comfortable with having it known publicly.

Dubois, before knowing the Sun had obtained the e-mail, twice refused to acknowledge any connection, informal or otherwise, with Bergoffen. “The only [connection] I can think of is that we have a list of references we send so that residents from other towns … can call and get information about us,” Dubois said. “I think Gene’s on that list, along with local businessmen and a former selectman. That’s the only thing I can think of.”

When told of the e-mail, Dubois admitted that [Bergoffen] “has gone back and forth with Howard [Dearborn]” and that he and Bergoffen have “probably [communicated] just with a letter to the editor.”

Dubois denied that Bergoffen has an active role shaping their public relations campaign in Fryeburg, adding that, “Gene is not alone in providing advice” or “communications to get good science done.”

Bergoffen said his advice was actively sought by Poland Spring officials. “They’ve occasionally asked my opinion of how people feel about certain issues, but I don’t help them formulate their positions,” he said. Bergoffen also said he has “given [Poland Spring] lots of advice on how to approach the questions citizens have so they can provide fair responses to concerns citizens have raised.”

When asked whether he has ever provided documents or advice to Poland Spring other than verbally, Bergoffen demurred. “I am not going to answer that question,” he said. After admitting that he and Dubois often exchange e-mail, Bergoffen said he “didn’t recall” the nature of those messages. “I’m not going to answer any more of that,” he said.

Both Bergoffen and Dubois reiterated several times that once Bergoffen left the board, he became free to support any issue or entity, including Poland Spring. Dubois, however, appeared to acknowledge that communications began shortly after Bergoffen left the planning board.

“He’s a private person he can offer us advice at that point, just as anyone can,” Dubois said. When asked why he helped Poland Spring, a company whose controversial application he had once approved shortly after leaving the planning board, Bergoffen said only, “Why not?”

Bergoffen defended his role as an informal advisor with Poland Spring, and said his only interest in the matter is ensuring a just outcome for the town. “I have strong beliefs about fairness and equity in the process,” he said. “I’ve found [Poland Spring] to be cooperative and helpful. They are looking for good science.”