COMMENTS ON RECENT CONWAY ISSUES – JOHN P. O’ROURKE
- Distortions by The Recorder
- Administrative assistant vote at Town Meeting
- Conflict of interest accusation
- The net metering vote at Town Meeting
1. Distortions by The Recorder
The concept of a free press is a double edged sword. If news is reported accurately then it is good; if a story is filled with implications, innuendo and discrepancies in the facts then it is bad and not real “news.” There are many ways of presenting a story that can distort, even when many of the facts are correct. And it only takes a few quotes from individuals who are uninformed or misinformed to start the ball rolling. Then the story picks up a life of its own and the misinformation and misconceptions become the “true” basis for future stories. That can make the free press a dangerous instrument.
For example, the May 14, 2013 article that appeared in the Recorder entitled “Two contenders for Conway Selectboard,” has a few of these implications, innuendo and discrepancies in the facts:
“If elected, Braccia will join a board with a reputation marred by accusations of secret meetings and allegations of state Open Meeting Law violations. Over the past year, the Selectboard has had two open meeting law complaints filed against it by former Town Administrator Ed McDonald and The Recorder.”
As far as I know, the only person or entity that made accusations of “secret meetings” was The Recorder. The Board of Selectmen has repeatedly refuted this allegation. I know The Recorder does not have any evidence of “secret meetings” BECAUSE THERE WERE NO “SECRET MEETINGS.” But The Recorder continues to place this false claim in its stories.
Concerning the complaints of Open Meeting Law violations, one was filed by a former employee who acted unethically in his position with the Town and then expected to profit by his actions by making claims for compensation that was not due. The other is by a commercial enterprise, The Recorder, that would benefit by the revelation it is seeking. I think it is very interesting to observe that the complaint filed by The Recorder is signed by Kathleen McKiernan, a young staff reporter. I am almost certain that Kathleen McKiernan would not file this complaint on her own and without the permission, blessing and, most probably with, the encouragement of her supervisor, the Managing Editor and Conway resident, George Forcier. I would think that if The Recorder is filing the complaint it should be signed by George Forcier. The responses to these complaints by the Board of Selectmen can be accessed on the Town website at http://www.townofconway.com/departments/selectboard/minutes/fy-2013-minutes/
“A lack of transparency and communication is one issue that angered many town boards and committees this year when they discovered the Selectboard had quietly approved plans for a municipal complex site analysis at the Rose property.”
How can the Board of Selectmen that has a meeting every Monday evening open to the public be accused of a “lack of transparency?” Our meetings are recorded and can be watched on Frontier Community Access Television (FCAT) at http://www.fcat12.org/index.php/vod . The phrase “angered many town boards and committees” is a major exaggeration. There may have been a miscommunication or misunderstanding at a Planning Board meeting among the members of the Planning Board and one of the Selectmen, but that did not result in “anger” and does not constitute “many town boards and committees.” And totally false is the phase: “the Selectboard had quietly approved plans for a municipal complex site analysis at the Rose property.” This is another statement that has been used over and over again by The Recorder even though it has repeatedly been refuted by the Board of Selectmen. Let me say it again: THE BOARD OF SELECTMEN NEVER APPROVED A SITE ANALYSIS FOR THE ROSE PROPERTY.
These are the facts:
- The Board of Selectmen was gathering information in the preliminary stage for considering the potential use of the Rose property as the site of a municipal office / safety complex. The idea that this concept was originated by the Board of Selectmen and was being “quietly” and “secretly” planned and pushed is nonsense. This concept was one of the alternatives considered by the Town Garage Committee at least 18 months before.
- The Board of Selectmen was aware of the many environmental and ecological restrictions and topographical limitations on the use of the Rose property. Because the municipal office / safety complex concept was in the preliminary information gathering stage and there was only a slim chance of that concept being developed on that site, there was no need to involve other boards or committees.
- At the point where there was any real chance of a municipal office / safety complex being developed on that site, the Planning Board would have been asked to do further studies to consider the project, involve any other committees it thought had a stake in the decision making process for uses of the site and make its recommendations to the Board of Selectmen and residents of Conway.
- The Board of Selectmen knows the process to be followed in these matters, NEVER over stepped its bounds in this process, NEVER approved any site analysis for a municipal office / safety complex and NEVER signed any contracts with engineers and/or architects for any work to be done.
Ask yourself the question: “How could the Board of Selectmen act “secretly” on any major project that would require the input of appropriate boards and committees and final approval by the voters of Conway at a Town Meeting?”
The irony in all of this is that the Board of Selectmen DOES NOT HAVE THE POWER TO ACT SECRETLY. THE BOARD LITERALLY CANNOT DO WHAT IT HAS BEEN ACCUSED OF DOING.
On May 20 in a article in The Recorder entitled “Conway voters nix clerical help” Kathleen McKiernan made the statement “Selectboard Chairman John O’Rourke declined comment.” THAT IS NOT TRUE. That statement implies that Ms. McKiernan spoke with me and I would not make a statement. The truth is she did not speak with me. An accurate report would have been “John O’Rourke could not be reached for comment.”
2. Administrative assistant vote at Town Meeting
I have to comment on the administrative assistant vote at the Town Meeting.
Let me preface my remarks by saying that my educational background is in finance, economics and marketing. My business background is in financial analysis, valuation and management consulting. In management consulting, I focused on strategic analysis, value analysis and improvement, process improvement and innovation, and the introduction of new computer and information technologies. I have successfully operated my own businesses and those of others.
Without getting into a very long and detailed explanation of how businesses can be operated to maximize production and beneficial outcomes, a simple explanation is that a business is a system; a group of personnel, processes and partners working together to produce a product or service. The cornerstones of any business or organization are personnel, processes, partners and products. The proper strength and allocation of these four cornerstones is essential to the successful operation of a business. The operation of the Town is the operation of a business; the same principles apply. The Town has to be operated with good business sense to maximize the services to the residents for the tax dollars spent.
A very important business principle is to maximize the use of the strongest skill sets of your personnel; personnel will be most productive when they are working within their strongest skill sets.
The administrative assistant position was budgeted for 12 hours per week at $15.00 per hour for a total of $9,360 for about 600 hours in FY2014. This position had no benefits. This position was conceived to do the necessary, lower level administrative functions in the Town office.
The Town Administrator position is a benefited position with an annual salary of $50,000 for 1950 hours in FY2014. When considering total compensation that is about $30.00 per hour. Amanda Winn, our current Town Administrator, has a strong skill set in grant writing which is a function badly needed by the Town and one of the major reasons she was selected for the position.
It was conceived that administrative assistant position would free up about 300 hours of the Town Administrator’s time to focus on grant writing to capture grants on which the Town is now missing out. With those 300 hours of grant writing the Town would have captured significant grant funds and, in effect, paid for the administrative assistant many times over. However, since that position was not funded in the budget, those lower level, but necessary administrative functions will be completed by the Town Administrator at a rate of $30.00 per hour and she will have very few hours to focus on grant writing.
From a business perspective, the effect of not funding the administrative assistant position will be to reduce the availability of one of the Town Administrator’s strongest skills and double the amount the Town will be paying for lower level administrative functions. This is the opposite of good business practice and a very poor business decision.
My advice for the future would be to follow the well thought out business recommendations of those with business acumen elected by the residents and not make quick, short-sighted, uninformed decisions on the floor of Town Meeting.
3. Conflict of Interest accusation
The same person who championed the opposition to the administrative assistant position, accused me later in the meeting of not revealing a conflict of interest. It is very easy to accuse anyone of anything as was demonstrated on the floor of the Town meeting.
The Massachusetts Conflict of Interest Law is MGL Chapter 268A, Sections 1 – 29. The Section that applies to the financial interest of a municipal employee is Section 19(a) that states that it is a violation of the law if:
“… a municipal employee who participates as such an employee in a particular matter in which to his knowledge he, his immediate family or partner, a business organization in which he is serving as officer, director, trustee, partner or employee, or any person or organization with whom he is negotiating or has any arrangement concerning prospective employment, has a financial interest …” (Emphasis added)
The key word in the Law is “participates” which is defined under Section 1(j) as follows:
“participate in agency action or in a particular matter personally and substantially as a state, county or municipal employee, through approval, disapproval, decision, recommendation, the rendering of advice, investigation or otherwise.”
Let me set the record straight with the facts:
- On February 22, 2013, a letter was sent to all municipal customers of Hampshire Power of which I am the Director outlining the savings from the Hampshire Solar program which is a business alliance between Hampshire Power and Nexamp, a Massachusetts based solar developer. The letter was signed by Geoff Rogers who is the Sales and Brokerage Specialist for Hampshire Power.
- The letter contained a GENERIC sample town meeting warrant article that read as follows:
“To see if the Town will vote to authorize the Board of Selectmen to enter into renewable energy power purchase and/or net metering credit purchase agreements, including solar energy and related net electricity metering credits, for terms of more than three years, and to take all actions necessary to implement and administer such agreements, or take any other action relative thereto.”
- When this came before a meeting of Board of Selectmen, a motion was made by Rick Bean and seconded by Jim Moore to place this article on the warrant for the Town Meeting on May 13, 2013. I DID NOT PARTICIPATE IN ANY DISCUSSION OF THIS LETTER OR THE SAMPLE WARRANT ARTICLE AND ABSTAINED FROM THE VOTE. I DID NOT PARTICIPATE EVEN THOUGH THIS IS A GENERIC WARRANT ARTICLE CONCERNING NET METERING THAT DOES NOT MENTION OR HAVE A DIRECT CONNECTION WITH HAMPSHIRE POWER OR HAMPSHIRE SOLAR TO AVOID THE APPEARANCE OF A CONFLICT OF INTEREST.
- The warrant article that appeared on the warrant for the Town Meeting on May 13, 2013 was also a GENERIC article that did not mention Hampshire Power or Hampshire Solar that read as follows:
“To see if the Town will vote to authorize the Board of Selectmen to enter into renewable energy power purchase and/or net metering credit purchase agreements, including solar energy and related net electricity metering credits, for terms of more than three years, on such terms and conditions as the Board of Selectmen deem in the best interest of the Town, and to authorize the Board of Selectmen to take all actions necessary to implement and administer such agreements, or take any other action relative thereto.”
- I DID NOT PARTICIPATE IN THE VOTE AT TOWN MEETING TO AVOID THE APPEARANCE OF A CONFLICT OF INTEREST.
In chronological terms, Hampshire Power has been supplying the Town of Conway with electricity since July 2007, long before I was elected to the Board of Selectmen and long before I became the Director of Hampshire Power.
Apparently, that person was so anxious to accuse me of a conflict of interest, he did not bother to review the process that placed this article on the Warrant IN WHICH I DID NOT PARTICIPATE and, more importantly and more obviously, totally overlooked the fact that the warrant article is GENERIC. It is an article about net metering credits and there are a number of organizations offering discounts on net metering credits; it has no specific connection to Hampshire Power or Hampshire Solar. That made his attempt to accuse me of a conflict of interest on the floor of the Town Meeting totally ridiculous.
4. The net metering vote at Town Meeting
Providing electricity consists of an enormously complex set of processes and operations about which the average consumer has no idea. The Independent Service Organization (ISO) that runs the New England electricity grid has the responsibility during every minute of every day to balance the electricity generated, the supply, with the electricity load, the demand. Electricity must be used as it is generated. There are no giant batteries attached to the grid to store electricity. The price of electricity changes 288 times per 24 hour day based on the generator capacity and mix, fuel availability, generators dispatched, generator and transmission outages, electricity load, etc.
In Massachusetts, over 60% of the electricity load is supplied by natural gas generators, another 22%+ comes from nuclear generation. The remainder is generated by oil, coal, hydro and renewable energy sources.
There are two major factors that will drive up the cost of electricity in Massachusetts for the foreseeable future. The price of natural gas which reached a low of $2.00 in April 2012 is now over $4.00 and will continue to increase due to demand in Europe and Japan. The second major factor is the limited pipeline capacity supplying natural gas to New England. That is a problem that will not be solved in the short term.
All the average consumer knows and expects is that when he/she flips the switch, the light go on and does not understand the complexity of the system that makes that happen.
The introduction and support of renewable energy sources, particularly solar, is extremely important to helping keep electricity prices stable in New England. All solar facilities are developed with long term financing as is common with any large scale, long term, capital investment. A solar project cannot be developed without the developer having long term, contracted “offtakers” for the electricity generated by the solar facility. The list of contracted offtakers is known as Schedule Z and is filed with the Department of Public Utilities for approval.
There are basically two ways for a municipality to benefit from the renewable energy revolution happening in Massachusetts. One option is for a municipality to go through the very long and costly process of developing a renewable energy facility on property within the Town. That process involves:
- Developer selection and negotiation;
- Site selection;
- Feasibility assessment;
- Conceptual design;
- Energy and attribute (e.g., SRECs) offtake agreements;
- Permitting and Interconnection Application;
- Equipment Procurement;
- Project finance;
- Long-term system operations and management.
The second option is to buy discounted net metering credits from a solar developer that has a solar facility located anywhere within the same Load Zone and Local Distributor Service Area to reduce the electricity costs of the municipality.
In both cases, long term contracts for the offtakers of the electricity supply are required. The second option is much simpler and, by far, the most preferred option of smaller municipalities.
The vote against the net metering article was basically a vote against a 21% reduction in the cost of electricity supply to the Town for the next 20 years.
To put the Conway vote in perspective, to date there have been 15 other Town Meetings in which the voters were presented with the same warrant article that appeared on the Warrant for the Conway Town Meeting. THE VOTERS OF ALL 15 TOWNS PASSED THE ARTICLE, MOST BY UNANIMOUS VOTE. It is estimated that there will be at least another 12 votes at Town Meetings on this same warrant article before the end of town meeting season and all are expected to pass.
It is ironic that at last year’s Town Meeting, the voters passed a warrant article to authorize the Board of Selectmen to sign a contract specifically with the Hampshire Council of Governments to join a municipal aggregation plan to lower the electricity rates of residents and businesses in Conway.