By Steve Bodnar, SeacoastOnline, November 19, 2009
WELLS — Poland Spring’s use of an overt advertising campaign to connect with voters before a widely-debated vote on Election Day wasn’t the only way the company sought support leading into a Nov. 3 referendum, according to records from the Wells Ordinance Review Committee.
The company’s Portland-based public relations firm, Barton & Gingold, also corresponded with town committee members to help bolster support for a large-scale water extraction ordinance that would have regulated any contract in town to withdraw water for bottling purposes, according to municipal e-mails obtained in a Freedom of Access Act request.
On Oct. 13, the Coast Star asked the town of Wells and members of the Board of Selectmen and Ordinance Review Committee to provide public e-mails pertaining to the water extraction debate. The request was prompted by an e-mail sent Oct. 3 to the Star by review committee member Jason Heft, which revealed a correspondence between him and Poland Spring.
According to the Oct. 3 e-mail, Poland Spring public relations representative Corey Hascall “drafted” an attached letter to the editor supporting the proposed ordinance on Heft’s behalf — in what both said during subsequent interviews was a transcription of his own words.
“I’m a worker and I don’t write letters,” Heft said during an Oct. 28 phone interview, in which he also stated that he is dyslexic. “(Hascall) talked to me and wrote it for me as I told her. …; She wrote it in my words.”
The proposed ordinance, Heft said, was the best way to protect the town in case of a water extraction operation.
Proponents of the ordinance said it would have protected Wells’ water resources by regulating water-bottling companies using rules rooted in science.
Those opposed said the ordinance would have opened the door to Nestlé Waters North America/Poland Spring, which they claim helped write the document.
In 2008, Wells scrambled to draft regulations after the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, and Wells Water District struck a deal with Poland Spring to allow local water extraction.
The deal was eventually axed, but the debate lingered.
Heft, who also is member of the Wells Zoning Board of Appeals, said he was never pressured to express his views about the ordinance and that he “wrote” the letter to the editor of his own accord.
The Coast Star initially responded to Heft’s letter by agreeing to publish it with a note of explanation making it clear that Hascall had been involved in the writing of the document. Heft’s wife, Lisa, asked in a response e-mail that it not be published because her husband wouldn’t receive sole credit for writing the letter.
According to Maine Press Association attorney Sig Schutz, a committee member could meet with or correspond with “any constituent or any interest group” to discuss an ordinance without it being an issue.
Schutz said perception could factor in regarding the writing of a letter for someone else.
Ordinance Review Committee Chairman Bill Gosbee said while he did not receive any correspondence from Poland Spring, he “completely trusts Jason’s ethics.”
Heft’s correspondence with Hascall, who attended numerous municipal meetings pertaining to water-rights over the past year, was not unique, according to e-mails obtained by the Coast Star during the FOAA request.
Two other Ordinance Review Committee members received e-mails from Hascall that detail an itinerary to send letters to the editor to local papers in support of the ordinance, and also sought to arrange volunteers to hand out flyers, according to the e-mails.
One Sept. 16 e-mail shows that Hascall reached out to committee members who were part of, or were in support of, the views expressed by a local group called Voices of Reason, which advocated a “yes” vote on the proposed ordinance.
The ordinance was overwhelmingly rejected by voters Nov. 3.
Committee members and public officials have the right to support and be part of organized groups, such as Voices of Reason, and such support is not a conflict of interest with regard to their public positions, according to Schutz.
Plans for the group’s official announcement came that week in September, according to the e-mail.
“(Group members) are finalizing the press release officially announcing Voices of Reason,” Hascall wrote in the e-mail. “I will circulate to this group next week.”
Ordinance Review Committee members Heft, Bob Lavoie and alternate Leo Menard said they felt the ordinance was the best way for the town to protect against large-scale water extraction.
Menard called the debate over the ordinance a battle between a “vocal minority and a silent majority,” and said the “yes” people “felt the majority was being swayed by misinformation.”
He said Voices of Reason and like-minded Ordinance Review Committee members wanted to hear Poland Spring out and that the situation was never underhanded.
Being on the same page as Poland Spring’s view, the three said they all accepted contact from Hascall after they were done drafting the ordinance, as a means to at least understand where the company stood on its views and to further engage in “yes” vote support.
Hascall said the company in no way ever tried to establish an agenda for Voices of Reason. None of the e-mails received by the Star indicated correspondence with Hascall and public officials before the proposed ordinance was finalized.
Menard also said he felt Poland Spring’s large-scale advertising campaign was never the way to reach voters.
“Unfortunately, we told the people at Poland Spring who thought they needed TV ads and flyers …; that it fed into a ‘no’ vote and looked like a big company trying to buy a vote and the (Voices of Reason) was never part of that, but you saw the backlash on that …; ,” he said.
Hascall said if Poland Spring was going to be heavily discussed by ordinance opponents during public hearings, then the company wanted to stay in tune with what was stated about them.
“We were put in the middle of the vote, whether we liked it or not,” Hascall said during a Nov. 10 phone interview.
She said the company is “deeply supportive of community engagement,” but felt that misinformation about scientific water resource data and Poland Spring itself was perpetuated throughout the course of the year during public dialogue.
Poland Spring wanted to support individuals who were in favor of the ordinance, which the company also felt was the best way to ensure local protection of water resources, she said.
Hascall also said feedback about the advertising campaign has prompted Poland Spring to reflect on how it approached the water extraction issue in Wells.
“These folks …; were strong voices in their community,” she said. “They have set their own agenda and strategy. I lent my time.”