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Critics target county agencies  

CVEC shares staff and board members with the county and the Compact, a situation critics decry as rife with potential conflicts. The agencies also use the same attorney, prompting questions about how they negotiate with each other. Opponents of land-based wind turbines on Cape Cod have rallied around these governance issues as they fight an attempt by CVEC to override a Brewster town meeting vote against a two-turbine project supported by the agency.

Credit:  By Patrick Cassidy, Cape Cod Times, www.capecodonline.com 11 June 2011 ~~

BARNSTABLE – The battle over land-based wind turbines on Cape Cod has morphed into a debate about the relationship between county government officials and two agencies they helped create to manage the region’s electricity supply.

Critics of the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, known as CVEC, and the Cape Light Compact say that Barnstable County leaders have failed to properly oversee the sister agencies.

They also say the Compact diverted $1.5 million in electric ratepayer money intended for energy-efficiency programs to CVEC, which has used the money to promote renewable energy projects such as land-based turbines in Brewster. And the critics question the appropriateness of county officials holding positions on the boards of the Compact and CVEC and the transparency of the two agencies.

Their concerns have recently gained momentum among county officials, proponents of open-government and even a wind-energy advocate.

“That concern existed when the organizations started,” said Chris Powicki, president of the Cape and Islands Renewable Energy Collaborative, an organization that promotes renewable energy and energy efficiency. For several years, he has questioned whether having the same people run the county, the Compact and CVEC is appropriate.

“The question is how many hats should members of county government be allowed to wear?” he said. “Absolutely I think there are legitimate conflicts of interest.”

The Compact was formed in 1997 to buy electricity in bulk and provide energy-efficiency programs on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. Most of its funding comes from ratepayers. CVEC was formed in 2007 to pursue renewable energy projects for its 14 member towns, the Compact, and Barnstable and Dukes counties, but its activities have so far been funded by the Compact’s largess.

CVEC shares staff and board members with the county and the Compact, a situation critics decry as rife with potential conflicts. The agencies also use the same attorney, prompting questions about how they negotiate with each other.

Opponents of land-based wind turbines on Cape Cod have rallied around these governance issues as they fight an attempt by CVEC to override a Brewster town meeting vote against a two-turbine project supported by the agency.

“First of all, it’s no secret that I’m opposed to the Brewster project,” said Eric Bibler, a Connecticut resident and frequent visitor to Wellfleet who has led the charge against wind energy projects in several Cape towns. “That’s been pretty apparent but this is not a means to an end.”

Bibler’s dealings with Barnstable County officials have revealed fundamental questions about the structure and finances of CVEC and other county-based organizations, he said. Attempts to get answers through voluminous public records requests have been rebuffed repeatedly by county officials, Bibler said, adding that he and others have spent hours outside CVEC and Compact meetings as the agencies’ boards conduct most of their business in closed executive session.

County officials argue that Bibler and other opponents of the Brewster wind power project are attacking them because they disagree with policy decisions. The Barnstable County commissioners – the three members of the executive branch of county government – have faced the brunt of the recent criticism. The commissioners, however, claim they don’t have oversight authority for CVEC or the Compact despite agreements that the county perform administrative and financial functions for the two agencies.

The recent pressure for public records is not about good governance at all but instead subterfuge for opposition to wind projects, said William Doherty, who serves as chairman of the commissioners.

“This is all about the Brewster wind project,” Doherty said.

The state ethics law is clear, he said about contentions that officials should limit their involvement on various boards.

“We can wear as many hats as we want to in regards to our service as long as we’re not getting any personal benefit out of it,” he said.

Doherty is also the chairman of the Compact. County Administrator Mark Zielinski is the treasurer for CVEC, while the county’s assistant administrator, Margaret Downey, is the clerk for CVEC and the administrator for the Compact. Several other CVEC board members hold seats on the Compact’s board.

CVEC and the Compact serve complementary purposes, Doherty said. An agreement between the two agencies allows for fund transfers, he said.

While the county is a member of CVEC and the Compact, commissioners have no more authority over the organizations than other members, Downey said.

Despite this, commissioners sent a letter on June 1 to the head of CVEC asking that the organization hold an informational session for the public. Commissioners have also allowed more public comment at their meetings and Downey posted a new set of explanations about the relationship between the county, CVEC and the Compact on CVEC’s website.

Questions about staffing and leadership are only part of the contentious standoff, however.

The Compact has transferred more than $2 million in ratepayer and grant money to the cooperative, most of which has been spent on legal fees, according to county officials and financial documents.

Of that, $520,000 was originally a grant to the Compact from ConEdison Solutions, the private energy company that holds a contract to sell power to the Compact and which won a contract to work with CVEC on a large solar-energy project.

A ConEdison spokeswoman declined to comment on the source or purpose of the grant but Downey said it was originally for energy-efficiency projects and that ConEdison gave the Compact permission to use it however the agency saw fit.

Bibler and other critics contend that money collected from ratepayers was not intended for renewable energy projects and that the grant raises suspicions about a possible quid pro quo between the Compact and ConEdison.

Downey says that ConEdison offered the best deal and would have won the energy supply contracts regardless of the grant.

“All of the documents are public,” CVEC president Charles McLaughlin said. “There’s no secrets here.”

The Compact, CVEC and Cape towns are working toward the same goals and the very reason for membership on CVEC is to represent the interests of members, McLaughlin said.

The decisions of the board, however, are ruled by a majority and not beholden to any individual member, he said.

Besides Bibler and Powicki, members of the county’s Assembly of Delegates – the regional government’s legislative branch – have started to question what role, if any, the county has in overseeing CVEC and the Compact.

“I do have concerns about the way things are set up,” said assembly speaker Ronald Bergstrom. “I’m concerned about the finances of CVEC. They spent a lot of money and they have very little to show for it.”

Still, it is unclear what role the Assembly of Delegates can play, he said.

Longtime county watchers are keeping an eye on the debate.

“This is the age-old problem,” said former county commissioner Mary LeClair.

The county creates an agency and what is originally meant to be an advisory board, she said.

Soon, however, the advisory board is making decisions that should be made by county commissioners, she said.

“The buck should stop with the commissioners,” she said.

A few officials wearing different hats is inevitable in small governments such as the county, said former state senator and county commissioner Robert O’Leary, who was instrumental in the formation of the Cape Light Compact.

“Frankly, it happens in town government all the time,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary is co-chairman for a special commission that county commissioners have asked to review the county’s structure. These types of issues are exactly what the body is likely to explore, he said.

Transparency is the most important goal of any government, especially when it comes to the flow of money, O’Leary said.

“If it’s too convoluted and not clear, I think you have to clear it up,” he said.

Source:  By Patrick Cassidy, Cape Cod Times, www.capecodonline.com 11 June 2011

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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