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County bodies battle over transparency

Barnstable County commissioners have slapped down a resolution by the county’s Assembly of Delegates calling for an investigation into the workings of two regional energy agencies.

The only hitch: The assembly already has sent its request to state officials.

The resolution, passed last week by the assembly, asked for help from the state inspector general and attorney general in understanding the finances and operations of the Cape Light Compact and Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative.

The compact was formed in 1997 by the county and towns to buy energy in bulk, provide energy efficiency programs and advocate for electric customers on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard. The cooperative was created in 2007 by the compact, county and towns to pursue renewable energy projects in the region.

Critics have argued that the two organizations have operated behind a veil of secrecy, stonewalling attempts by the public to access information on their finances and decision-making.

At its meeting Wednesday, the three-member board of county commissioners unanimously voted to disapprove the assembly’s resolution, citing an inconsistency with executive powers outlined in the county charter and the belief that the two organizations have not committed “fraud, waste or abuse.” The state inspector general is responsible for preventing and detecting fraud, waste and abuse in the spending of public money.

To override the commissioners, the assembly must pass the measure by a two-thirds majority, a threshold the measure failed to achieve the first time around.

But the request for help from the state already has gone out, and there’s no indication the assembly plans to revisit it.

“As per a(n) action taken on December 5, 2013, the Assembly of Delegates voted to instruct the Speaker to contact your office and seek your assistance in reviewing and bringing transparency to the shared activities of Barnstable County Government, Cape Light Compact and Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative,” assembly Speaker Ronald Bergstrom wrote in a letter sent earlier this week to the inspector general and attorney general.

Bergstrom and other assembly members have argued that their request does not require approval by the commissioners.

But, in a memorandum sent Tuesday to recently appointed County Administrator Michael Brillhart, County Counsel Robert Troy wrote that the charter requires the commissioners to respond to the resolution.

“In my opinion, the Assembly of Delegates has lawfully utilized the resolution process, but that resolution must be presented to the county commissioners for their action under Section 3-8 of the charter,” Troy wrote.

Reached after the vote by the commissioners, Bergstrom said he would not be putting the matter on the assembly’s agenda.

“If they go further and send a letter to the (inspector general), it’s going to be kind of awkward,” he said. “Until they actually vote to take some action, I’m just going let it lie.”

The letter he sent was a statement of fact reflecting the assembly’s vote, he said, adding that communications to outside entities by the assembly don’t require approval from the commissioners.

“The commissioners and I and the assembly are going to disagree on the procedure,” he said. “It’s Christmastime. We did what we did; they did what they did.”

Before Wednesday’s vote by the commissioners, members of the public pushed for them to approve the assembly’s resolution.

“I hope you will not try to quash any investigation into the financial doings of (the cooperative) and (the compact) because I think all you will succeed in doing is embarrassing yourself, your office, your elected office, and the public who cares very much about transparency,” Sandwich resident Jim Rogers said.

Compact Chairwoman Joyce Flynn defended her agency, saying much of the information the public has been asking for is posted online.

“We work very hard, and we work very honestly,” she said.

Several audience members questioned the appropriateness of William Doherty serving as chairman of board of commissioners because of his dual role as a member of the compact’s board.

Earlier this week Doherty said the State Ethics Commission already has found that his role with both organizations does not violate ethics rules.