Editorial: Evolution of GCET has been bumpy, to say the least

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Who wouldn’t want high-speed Wi-Fi internet connecting their homes for less than the going commercial rate? Even better if you could access wireless service virtually anywhere in Greenfield with your phone, tablet or laptop.

It was that prospect that persuaded the Greenfield Town Council to create Greenfield Community Energy and Technology, a town-based broadband provider. GCET is neither a municipal department nor a private enterprise. Instead, it’s a hybrid designed to compete with, and presumably undercut, private companies like Comcast because GCET needn’t make a profit.

Sounds good. But in reality, it hasn’t begun so smoothly.

GCET was slow to organize and to build its physical network. This was blamed in part on a shortage of the cable needed and a shortage of qualified engineers willing to work for the wages GCET pays. Just as work seemed to be accelerating this summer, with some neighborhoods getting connected and prospective customers signing up, some town officials began to voice other concerns.

While GCET’s finances are handled by town accountants, has a large measure of control over particular line items. Sharply differing opinions on GCET spending has sparked a feud.

GCET General Manager Daniel Kelley is not just another department head. While the mayor hired Kelley, the plan is for a board of directors appointed by the mayor eventually to take over independent control of the organization. Kelley, who for now still works for the mayor, would then work for his own board. The Legislature needs to approve that final step in GCET’s evolution.

Until then, Kelley’s pay is controlled by the Town Council. Town Council President Bricket Allis and Vice President Isaac Mass have picked a fight with Kelley, and indirectly the mayor, over GCET finances, alleging mismanagement of money and salary disputes. They’re trying to bring the state in to scrutinize the situation.

Town Accountant Elizabeth Braccia has indicated that she has concerns with GCET procurement procedures. The town’s bookkeepers have questioned several of Kelley’s expenses. It didn’t help that this summer Kelley threatened to sue the town over $603 that was drawn from GCET’s account over a disagreement or misunderstanding among the money managers. In the $603 dispute, Mayor William Martin sided with Kelley.

Some of these issues surfaced in town hall emails that reached the council, ruffled some feathers and led Mass and Allis to seek a probe by the state auditor. And the council has subpoenaed relevant town hall email exchanges with Kelley and other financial documents and plans to take testimony from town bookkeepers.

Complaints that GCET may not be playing by the standard town hall bookkeeping rules is bad enough, considering it was created by the council with $5 million in taxpayer seed money. There is simmering unhappiness that Kelley has continued to press for a raise from $120,000 to at least $150,000, which the mayor originally proposed but the council trimmed last year. There also may be some lingering resentment that Martin hired Kelley as a consultant in early planning stages of GCET and then slid him into the permanent general manager job without any real search for other candidates.

The Town Council is scheduled next month to consider whether to ask State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office to investigate GCET.

Mass says he fears mismanagement could hurt the town financially. He wrote to Bump that GCET’s highest revenues have been under $2,500 in a week, which does not cover the manager’s salary and fringe benefits, let alone the organization’s 13 other employees.

“With a balance of under $935,000, absent substantially increased revenue, GCET will, in the next 12 months, need to seek substantial additional funds from the Town Council,” Mass wrote.

Exactly what Mass and Allis expect from such a review isn’t clear. The state enabling legislation the town used to create GCET makes it pretty clear GCET doesn’t report to the council and to a large degree runs itself.

Eventually, revenue from users is supposed to pay back the taxpayer’s $5 million, and GCET will need to become financially self sufficient. The mayor, the town attorney, Kelley and his lawyers have been working for six months on a memorandum of understanding that would spell out details of the long-term relationship between GCET and its parent, the town.

Can the town reinvent GCET to make it more responsive to the council or other town officials? That sounds like fodder for that memo of understanding.

Maybe having Bump or the state Department of Revenue review GCET’s operation and its working relationship with Greenfield isn’t a bad idea. A neutral grown-up referee might help mend fences. While they are at it, perhaps the state auditor and state Revenue Department could review whatever memorandum of understand the mayor develops with Kelley and whether that will hold taxpayers harmless in the long run.

Finally, to show good will toward the people of Greenfield, Kelley and the mayor could make the MOU process more transparent. We understand that some lawyers might argue that GCET, which has to compete with commercial private companies, needs to keep certain information confidential. But exposure of technical proprietary information can be kept to a minimum while maximizing the transparency that will be essential for rebuilding trust with GCET’s municipal partners, and with the taxpayers who so far have footed the bill.