Greenfield Town Council votes to subpoena documents and witness testimony about GCET

  • Daniel Kelley, GCET general manager Contributed photo


  • Mayor Bill Martin in his Town Hall office. August 11, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Scot Broderick of Lightspeed Productions in Greenfield was a beta tester for GCET’s internet service in town. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/24/2017 9:17:14 PM

GREENFIELD — In an unprecedented move, Town Council has voted to subpoena witnesses and documents as part of an investigation into the town’s relationship with its semi-independent municipal broadband provider.

Town Council has never voted to move forward with a subpoena before, according to Council President Brickett Allis, though the Selectboard came close once in the early 2000s. But during a special meeting Thursday, councilors unanimously voted to subpoena a slew of documents, including all written communication between Greenfield Community Energy and Technology (GCET) — the town’s new quasi-governmental internet provider — and current and former town employees; a number of financial records, including bills; memorandums of understanding between GCET and the town; and more.

The council has also subpoenaed the mayor, treasurer-collector and town accountant to testify under oath during its next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 20.

Under Greenfield’s Town Charter, Town Council has the power to investigate town affairs and the conduct and performance of any town agency, and may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths and require the production of evidence.

GCET, which was established last summer, is in the midst of a townwide fiber optic build-out that will leave Greenfield bathed in a WiFi network. Last year, Town Council approved a $5 million bond that was appropriated to GCET for the creation of the municipal broadband network.

The council’s investigation stems from an Aug. 8 email that was leaked to Allis, in which GCET General Manager Daniel Kelley states his organization was taking legal action against the town, the mayor, auditor and treasurer for unauthorized deductions from GCET’s bank account — which Kelley characterized as “theft.”

In the email, Kelley wrote that he was suspending interest payments from GCET’s account to the town in July, as is GCET’s option. An attached notice from the Office of the Treasurer-Collector showed that $603.01 in interest accrued during July was scheduled to be transferred out of GCET’s account.

Greenfield Mayor William Martin previously said the issue was over whether a withdrawal from GCET’s account without the general manager’s permission is a violation of the law. According to Kelley, GCET suspended interest transfers in June, but those earnings continued to be withdrawn. Martin said once he found out, the money was immediately returned to GCET’s account.

Both Kelley and Martin have since said GCET is not taking legal action against the town.

Council Vice President Isaac Mass has also asked State Auditor Suzanne Bump to investigate the financial administration of GCET, citing a number of concerns including potential GCET procurement procedures; mismanagement of funds; fear by town employees of retaliation by the mayor; salary disputes involving GCET’s director; and the organization’s financial stability.

“I think we have every right to do this because there are town employees involved,” At-Large Councilor Karen “Rudy” Renaud said of the subpoena process. “If this were something that had been up and running and had been running for years and years … I think that would be one thing, but that startup money is still our money, and there are town employees involved in this. I’m always looking into things, and sometimes that road won’t lead you anywhere, but if it leads us nowhere, I guess what’s the harm in doing it?”

Renaud added that she saw enough red flags in Mass’ letter to the State Auditor and Kelley’s leaked email to warrant an investigation.

In addition to the written documents subpoenaed by the council, Martin, Treasurer-Collector Kelly Varner and Town Accountant Elizabeth Braccia will also be required to testify before the council under oath. On Thursday, councilors drafted a list of questions that will be asked during the meeting.

Varner and Braccia will be asked what, if any, irregularities they’ve observed related to GCET in the performance of their duties; what, if any, actions related to GCET have made them feel personally uncomfortable; what, if any, recommendations they have for better performance by GCET; and whether there’s anything else they feel the council should know pertaining to GCET.

The list of questions for Martin is significantly longer, and includes questions about what formal protocols are in place for accusations against town employees; what information GCET does not have to provide to the Town Council, and why; who is liable for excess expenditures by GCET; and more.

“I can’t imagine why any member of the town wouldn’t want to provide any of this information to us. None of it should be hidden,” Mass said. “I have no doubt we will get the information, because I think 90 percent of it is held by the IT Department in the form of email.”

At-Large Councilor Mark Maloni expressed concern during the meeting about subpoenaing witnesses who may fear retaliation and feel uncomfortable speaking about the issue in public, saying it could add a level of unnecessary drama.

Kelley did not attend Thursday’s meeting, but said in a statement that while it would be GCET’s preference to refrain from public discussion of an internal matter, “GCET is compelled to address these matters on a factual basis devoid of grandstanding.”

GCET was established under Chapter 164 of Massachusetts General Laws, which originally allowed for “municipal light plants” to provide electricity, and in modern times is being used to run municipal broadband operations. According to Kelley, Chapter 164 gives GCET’s manager full charge of the operation and management of GCET; the collection of bills; and the keeping of accounts.

“Accordingly, use of the GCET funds and payment of GCET expenses are among the powers and duties vested in the manager pursuant to Chapter 164,” Kelley said.

While the town accountant may refuse to approve any payment he or she finds fraudulent, unlawful or excessive, the accountant is also required to file a written statement with the town treasurer of the reasons for such refusal.

Kelley previously said there are currently more than a dozen outstanding expenditures that haven’t been paid.

“At no time has GCET received from the town auditor a written statement indicating that any of the payments requested by GCET have been fraudulent, unlawful or excessive. Yet, on a number of occasions, GCET’s payment requests have not been made,” Kelley said. “Also, amounts have been transferred from GCET’s account without its authorization. This is problematic.”

Precinct 8 Councilor Ashli Stempel said she doesn’t want to start a witch hunt, and hopes the investigation will be based on facts and not hear-say.

“I don’t want the entity of GCET to be tarnished by what people of the entity may or may not be doing — I want to control that message to make sure that the town still has faith in what GCET can do,” she said. “If we’re undermining this thing that we invested $5 million in, then it’s never going to succeed.”

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