After months of standing on the sidelines, the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates last week officially got involved in the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative (CVEC) controversy.
Since March, members of the public have pressed county officials for detailed financial and structural information about CVEC, which was established by the Cape Light Compact in 2007 to develop local renewable energy projects.
Residents have attended numerous CVEC, Cape Light Compact, and Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners meetings to urge county leaders to reveal CVEC’s inner workings, and last Wednesday they turned to the assembly hoping to receive a more satisfactory response.
They received it in the form of a new investigative panel that was charged with exploring residents’ concerns about CVEC and its projects. Under the county charter, the assembly has the authority to report on any other segment of county government through the formation of an ad hoc committee.
Ronald J. Bergstrom of Chatham, speaker of the assembly, did not announce what form the panel would take, but he could choose to assign one of the assembly’s standing committees to tackle the review.
However, he noted that it was not within the assembly’s authority to challenge alleged ethical violations by county officials involved with CVEC, or to question its financial practices. He further warned that the assembly might not be able to take any sort of formal action against CVEC as it is not a full-fledged county department.
The proposal only barely passed in a roll call vote. Delegate Thomas K. Lynch of Barnstable abstained from the vote, stating that he expected to simply hear the request and vote at a later date, when an item could be placed on the formal agenda, and Julia C. Taylor of Falmouth was absent from the meeting.
Of the remaining delegates, 29.53 percent voted yes and 27.66 voted no under the assembly’s weighted vote system (each vote is weighted to reflect an individual delegate’s hometown population). After a brief debate, the assembly determined that because there was a quorum, the vote was legitimate and thus the proposal passed.
Delegates Richard J. Anderson of Bourne and James J. Killion of Sandwich voted in favor of the study, and Marcia R. King of Mashpee voted against it.
‘Just Interested Citizens’
The assembly’s vote followed the airing of grievances against CVEC, the Cape Light Compact, and the county commissioners by Eric Bibler, a Weston, Connecticut, resident and president of the Wellfleet-based Save Our Seashore, and Preston G. Ribnick of Wellfleet—CVEC’s two most outspoken critics, who claim county officials have been stonewalling their efforts.
Mr. Ribnick, founder of the anti-wind turbine grassroots organization WindWise, said his frustration began when he started attending CVEC meetings out of “basic interest…as citizens we’d like to learn more about this organization.”
“We’re just interested citizens in good government,” he said.
However, he said CVEC required any questions from the public to be submitted on note cards, and that prompted residents to start investigating how CVEC operates and is funded. According to Mr. Ribnick, CVEC’s “major source of funding” is the Cape Light Compact.
The compact, which functions as a municipal aggregator for electricity for its member towns, receives funding for its operating budget through administrative charges attached to electric rates paid by Cape consumers, the county budget, and state and federal grants. A “conservation charge” that appears on Cape Codders’ electric bills directly funds energy efficiency programs administered by the compact.
Since CVEC’s formation, the compact has provided CVEC with—according to varying claims—$1.5 million to $2 million in start-up funding and conditional grants, the condition being that if CVEC ever generates revenue through a renewable energy project, it would repay the compact.
Feeling that their inquiries were being largely ignored by the Cape Light Compact or CVEC, Mr. Ribnick and a handful of residents began attending county commissioners’ meetings. “We made a serious attempt to understand the structure and the overlapping management of…the county leadership, CLC, and CVEC,” Mr. Ribnick said.
That overlap is mainly due to William Doherty, E. Mark Zielinski, and Margaret Downey holding multiple positions within county government and the two quasi-government entities.
Mr. Zielinski is the county administrator, represents the county on the CVEC board of directors, and is the board’s treasurer. Ms. Downey, the assistant county administrator, is the CLC administrator and represents the compact on the CVEC board. Mr. Doherty is chairman of the county commissioners, represents the commissioners on the CLC board of directors, and is currently the CLC board president.
They are all voting members of their respective boards, but do not possess any sort of supreme authority over the Cape Light Compact or CVEC. According to the state’s conflict of interest laws, none of the three are violating the law with their concurrent memberships, and Cape Light Compact and CVEC bylaws expressly call for county representation.
Mr. Ribnick told the assembly that his many requests for public CVEC and Cape Light Compact documents, and for a formal discussion with the county commissioners, have been denied, sometimes with an air of “unmistakable hostility.”
The county commissioners were absent from the assembly meeting, as were Mr. Zielinski and Ms. Downey.
Motives In Question
Further, Mr. Ribnick said his motivations for requesting information have been challenged by “key officials,” though he did not specifically name anyone who made such accusations.
“There are no laws or statutes, nor history nor traditions in our country where public servants or elected or appointed officials have the right to examine the motives of citizens to determine if they’re going to” honor the public’s right to request and receive public documents, Mr. Ribnick said.
The CVEC backlash has been tentatively traced to a CVEC-funded wind turbine project in the town of Brewster. At Brewster’s annual May Town Meeting, voters narrowly rejected a proposal to amend zoning bylaws to allow the construction of the turbines, but the Brewster Board of Selectmen took the tally as a sign of resident support for the project, and has petitioned the state to issue an exemption for the turbines.
Edward S. Lewis of the Brewster Board of Selectmen and Robert P. Mahoney, a Dennis resident who served as chairman of the compact’s board of directors for 11 years, have openly accused CVEC critics of trying to halt the Brewster project by undermining CVEC.
“It is my opinion that the request to conduct an investigation of the [Cape Light Compact] and CVEC is a subterfuge for the real issue; which is to prevent CVEC from pursuing the Brewster Wind project,” Mr. Mahoney wrote in a letter to county officials.
“This is all about derailing Brewster Wind,” Mr. Lewis said at last week’s meeting. “Everything else is a subterfuge.”
He added that Mr. Zielinski and Ms. Downey have been “thrown under the bus” on the CVEC issue. “To have them roasted here by Mr. Bibler and Mr. Ribnick, without them having an opportunity to reply, is presumptuous and rude on [the critics’] part.”
“Those are good employees, and if they’ve done something illegal, then you have a right to investigate them,” Mr. Lewis said, “but if they’ve done their job, then you ought to ask them the questions.”
Mr. Ribnick did include the Brewster project in his pitch to the assembly, asking the county body to push CVEC to voluntarily submit the project to the Cape Cod Commission for a review under new Development of Regional Impact (DRI) standards approved earlier this year. If CVEC refuses to comply, Mr. Ribnick has asked the assembly to submit the proposal to the CCC itself as a discretionary referral.
The assembly did not act on that request.
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