Editorial: Let’s hope reset on GCET gets broadband mission back on track

Thursday, September 28, 2017

We don’t know if Greenfield’s mayor has Wi-Fi in his office, but he does seem to finally have gotten the message about the town’s nascent municipal broadband provider, GCET.

Several weeks ago, the mayor seemed to side with his hand-picked interim general manager of the quasi-independent Greenfield Community Energy and Technology in disputes with town hall bookkeepers over alleged inappropriate use of taxpayer money.

Daniel Kelley had several skirmishes with the town accountant and others because he felt his agency didn’t have to follow the same rules as other town departments because GCET was created through the state Municipal Light Plant legislation originally intended to allow towns to start their own electric and telephone companies. Kelley also raised hackles on the Town Council when he was seen as lobbying to boost his salary to $150,000 or more in a town where the mayor makes about half that. Finally, when the mayor didn’t support his town hall staff against Kelley’s threats to sue over disputed payments, the mess broke into the public eye. In the midst of GCET’s town-wide fiber optic build-out that everyone hopes leaves Greenfield bathed in an affordable Wi-Fi network, emails and other documents were leaked to town councilors who already were starting to worry about GCET’s fiscal situation.

To get to the bottom of the controversy, the council’s leadership took the extraordinary step of subpoenaing town hall and GCET officials to testify under oath at a public hearing and ordered up reams of emails and related financial documents. And the council called upon the state auditor to help sort things out.

But before the hearing was convened last week, the mayor switched sides and fired Kelley. By week’s end, he issued a press release vindicating Town Accountant Elizabeth Braccia, Kelley’s chief antagonist in Town Hall, based on an opinion from the state Department of Revenue that backed her assertion all along that GCET wasn’t so independent that it didn’t have to follow standard town spending and accounting rules.

The accountant and council should feel good this week for beginning to shed more light on GCET’s operations, which have been largely out of public view as it has been spending the $5 million in tax dollar seed money to build out its town-wide high speed internet service.

Now, rather than battling its municipal creation, the council has reaffirmed its commitment to the organization’s success. In a resolution drafted by At-Large Town Councilor Penny Ricketts, councilors commited themselves to GCET becoming a successful community-owned telephone, data and internet provider.

“Many of Greenfield’s youth come from low-income families that lack access to affordable internet services needed to keep those children in school and learning,” the resolution says. “And ... it’s important to increase access to the internet, as it facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally, or provides other resources for education, especially across the digital divide.”

“I still feel like now we can start fresh; hopefully, the GCET employees we have now are good, and they’ll be given some guidance from the mayor so they can continue on,” Ricketts has remarked.

We hope this dust-up, the clarity it brought about how GCET should operate and the council’s support will contribute the program’s eventual success.

The Revenue Department has confirmed that the state law that allowed for creation of GCET considers it subject to a municipal accounting procedure that allows the accountant and treasurer to monitor spending of town departments. If the Auditor’s Office can quickly review the management setup and fiscal health of GCET, town leaders can figure out how to proceed.

There have been concerns the agency may be running out of money, having burned through all but $850,000 of the town’s $5 million investment. The council, which controls the town’s purse strings, will need to confidently answer that question before long. And the mayor needs to find GECT a new interim leader who everyone can trust, and he needs to work out the legal framework that will govern how the agency operates in the long term.

We hope that this reset, which seems to have happened just in the nick of time, will go well, be done in the open and invite the council’s participation, which would restore confidence in the program and make it most likely to succeed.