In the Arena: One thing’s certain, GCET numbers don’t add up

Thursday, September 21, 2017

I guess that whole Greenfield Town Council-GCET subpoena idea wasn’t so crazy after all?

I’m sure a lot of people were prepared to dismiss the council’s decision to subpoena GCET records and compel testimony from town employees as some kind of elaborate political “gotcha” game.

But it now appears, based on some of the information revealed during that testimony, that it was not only the right move, but it may have helped avert a potential operational disaster that could have cost Greenfield untold numbers of dollars.

The one positive thing to come out of Wednesday’s hearing was the unanimous desire of all involved to see GCET succeed. Beyond that, there wasn’t a whole lot to be happy about, as town officials detailed a variety of highly questionable management practices and alleged intimidation tactics by now-former GCET interim Manager Dan Kelley and, by extension, his boss, Greenfield Mayor Bill Martin.

There were a number of revelations, including tales of missing checks, improperly stored contracts, failure to file proper state paperwork, and attempts to use company credit cards for items not allowed under public procurement laws.  The town accountant challenges triggered a pattern of intimidation that included said accountant being told to “know your role” — the kind of insulting idiom usually reserved for pro wrestlers, not a supposedly professional manager of a multi-million dollar town department.

All of this occurred under the apparently semi-watchful eye of a mayor who clearly did not seem to know where his power to manage this department began and ended. It’s obvious Martin badly wants to see GCET succeed, but it was apparent from his testimony that there are certain aspects of Chapter 164, the state statute that governs municipal light plants, that he clearly does not understand.

As was pointed out during the hearing, Martin is not a lawyer, and should not be expected to have the expertise to dissect state law. Maybe, but he is expected to know enough to manage the thing, and the impression created during his and other’s testimony is that he depended a lot on Kelley to determine how the management of GCET should be handled.

It’s akin to the manager of an operation calling a staff member in to ask them how they should be managed and under what circumstances, then running interference for them when things start to go wrong.

Then there are the numbers, which is the truly scary part of this whole thing, especially when you consider that the town is statutorily responsible for funding this agency if it runs out of cash. Of the $5 million the town appropriated, $850,000 remains. The expenses for GCET’s operation average $76,000 a month. The agency currently takes in, according to Town Accountant-Auditior Elizabeth Braccia’s testimony, between $800 and $2,400 a month, and has generated around $30,000 in total revenue since the spring, with a good portion of the town still to be built out.

You don’t have to be Warren Buffett to recognize that those numbers just don’t add up, yet Martin continues to say that no additional taxpayer money will be needed to keep GCET operating.

The most devastating testimony of the night came from Braccia, who detailed a pattern of boorish behavior that included continued threats of lawsuits by Kelley, and his continued push to get Braccia to approve payment of the aforementioned GCET credit card transactions mostly for food and other items she said specifically are not allowed to be paid for by public money.

“I was told that (GCET) is different — that it is an ‘entreprenurial’ venture, and is not the same as public money,” Braccia said, adding that she was told such purchases were necessary to “boost office morale.”

She said it wasn’t easy to stick by her guns, even when, after asking Martin to get Kelley to back off with his lawsuit threat, she was told by the mayor, “just because it makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the right to do it.” A pretty amazing response, especially from an experienced fiscal manager who ought to know better.

It’s clear from the testimony that Martin made the right move in firing Kelley, not that he had much choice because the council leadership was prepared to force the issue in a special meeting, where it would have voted on a motion to reduce Kelley’s two-year, $130,000-a-year contract to one day and one dollar, which it is allowed to do, as Kelley was, at that point, technically still a town employee.

The question now is, where does the process go from here? The council has voted to have the state auditor do a study of the GCET books. Martin is now the commissioner of the agency and will presumably appoint a new interim director until such time as the Legislature gets around to passing a bill establishing a new GCET oversight board.

What’s not clear is how these very public revelations impact Martin politically. He’s done a lot of great things in his time as mayor, and has helped spearhead projects that have literally changed the face of this community. But this has not been his finest hour, and he’s the one who needs to shoulder the responsibility for the missteps — just as he will reap the benefits if this venture ultimately proves successful.

Having to fire the interim director in the middle of a high-speed internet rollout isn’t a great confidence booster for a service looking to attract customers, but it’s also not a death sentence either. There are still ways to make this work, but it will require a team effort to get it done.

In the meantime, Greenfield’s residents owe their town council a debt of gratitude for being willing to step up and help prevent what could have wound up being one of the greatest fiscal missteps in modern history.

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