In the Arena: Battles in broadband land

Thursday, August 31, 2017

I don’t know what the Greenfield Town Council expects to find in its examination of the GCET books, but I sure hope it ends up being worth it.

The council broke out the political “A-bomb” last Thursday when, for the first time, it executed its subpoena powers as it investigates the most recent legal skirmish between the town and the operator of its new municipal high-speed Internet service, called Greenfield Community Energy and Technology.

The subpoenas were issued Friday for GCET’s records, and for a number of town employees, including the mayor, who will testify before the council at its Sept. 20 meeting.

For the employees in question, it will be their first chance to speak freely about the removal of money from GCET’s accounts, categorized as “theft” in an email by GCET General Manager Daniel Kelley, who clearly believes the council has exceeded its authority with this action.

Kelley contends that GCET is an independent agency, and not subject to council scrutiny, even though it was funded with $5 million in seed money provided by the town. Kelley has been going back and forth on a pretty interesting e-mail chain with the council leadership, which contends that it only pursued the subpoena option because it wasn’t getting answers to any of its questions.

As intriguing as this political dustup has become, its timing couldn’t be worse, especially since GCET is working right now to sell this service to potential residential customers, who may be scared off by what they’ve been hearing and reading. And if not enough homeowners sign up, the service is never going to become self-sufficient and the town will still be on the hook, by law, to fund it, regardless of the cost.

Another disturbing element is the fear of retaliation some employees are experiencing. Another detail revealed at last Thursday’s council meeting was an executive order which effectively bars employees from talking to councilors without going through the mayor.

Such orders are relatively common in mayoral forms of government. I experienced it when I went to North Adams a few years back to research mayoral communities and couldn’t get directions to the bathroom without checking with Mayor John Barrett’s office.

Up until last Thursday, I was unaware such an order existed in Greenfield, but the council leadership certainly was, and clearly not happy about it.

“The only way for these people to be able to come forward and tell their story, without fear of retribution, is by subpoena,” Council President Brickett Allis. “Otherwise, we have no way of getting that information.”

Sept. 20 can’t come soon enough, as far as I’m concerned.

Sund on the hot seat

It appears an apology is warranted in the Verne Sund-Penny Ricketts Town Council “colored comment” controversy, but not from Ricketts.

For those who may have missed it, during the council’s “Safe City” debate, Sund, who represents Precinct 1, made reference to his “colored” neighbors, for which he was called out by Ricketts for using inappropriate language to describe African Americans. Ricketts is the council’s only black member.

It was pretty apparent that Sund wasn’t being racist. If he was guilty of anything, it was of using arcane language at the worst possible time. Penny called him on it, and Sund apologized after the meeting, and that should have been the end of it.

But Sund now says he’s getting hate mail at his home, which, along with the corresponding coverage of the incident, prompted Sund’s wife Barbara to pen a scathing letter to the editor chastising Ricketts for calling her husband a racist.

In a way, the reaction is somewhat understandable. Mrs. Sund saw her husband coming under attack for a poor choice of words, and decided to swing back at the person she felt most responsible.
The only problem is, Ricketts never called Verne a racist. She did classify what he said as “racist language” in a follow-up story, but never went beyond that, which means an apology is in order.

In fact, she said in a pretty lengthy Facebook post the next day that Sund should not resign his council seat as some have called for — a group which Verne says includes Mayor Bill Martin.

“After it happened, I called the mayor for some advice on what to do, and he told me I should resign,” Sund said. “That surprised me.’

Martin has a little different recollection of the conversation.

“What I told him was that he had two choices — resign or make some sort of public statement clarifying what he said,” Martin said. “My understanding is that’s what he plans.”

The council leadership is also taking some heat for not chastising Sund for his word choice, but I wouldn’t expect anything to change on that front. Just before the recent special council meeting on GCET, Council President Brickett Allis and Vice President Isaac Mass reiterated their support for Sund after hearing that Martin had reportedly called for his resignation, and encouraged him to stay on, which it appears he will.

I hope that closes the book on this sad chapter, although I doubt it will.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former Recorder reporter.