Mayor, officials testify at GCET hearing

Recorder Staff
Published: 9/20/2017 10:55:46 PM

GREENFIELD — When Greenfield’s town accountant refused to approve payments for purchases made by the town’s new quasi-municipal internet provider that she deemed inappropriate, she said the organization’s general manager repeatedly tried to threaten her into compliance, saying she should “know her role.”

Town Accountant Elizabeth Braccia testified before Town Council under oath Wednesday about Greenfield Community Energy and Technology — the town’s new quasi-municipal internet provider — which has been the subject of numerous allegations and conflicts over the past several months, including concerns about procurement procedures; alleged money mismanagement; salary disputes involving GCET’s former director; and the organization’s financial stability.

Braccia, along with Mayor William Martin and Treasurer-Collector Kelly Varner, were subpoenaed by the council in an unprecedented move to testify about GCET.

During her testimony, Braccia said when she reviewed GCET bills, she noticed a number of irregularities, including the purchase of Christmas decorations, coffee, gift cards, lunches, and disposables like paper plates.

“These types of expenditures are viewed as improper under municipal finance law,” she said.

Braccia said many of the purchases, which totaled nearly $3,000, were made on a credit card, making them impossible for her to reject. Furthermore, she said GCET’s former Interim General Manager Daniel Kelley ordered checks for GCET using the town’s tax ID, which she had to continually void, as the checks were against Massachusetts General Laws.

Though Braccia said she had a good relationship with the mayor prior to this year, their relationship became strained because of conflicts regarding GCET.

“I was called upstairs on many occasions to say that GCET was going to bring me and the town to court,” she said.

On Tuesday, Kelley, who was hired in July 2016, was fired by the mayor.

Braccia said her integrity and knowledge of the law was constantly questioned, making her feel uncomfortable.

Established last summer, GCET is in the midst of a townwide fiber optic build-out that will leave Greenfield bathed in a Wi-Fi network. Last year, Town Council approved a $5 million bond that was appropriated to GCET for the creation of the municipal broadband network, under the belief it would become a financially self-sustaining entity governed by a board of directors chosen by the mayor.

Varner said about $850,000 of the $5 million is left.

Last month, the council also voted to subpoena a slew of documents, including all written communication between GCET and current and former town employees; a number of financial records, including bills; and memorandums of understanding between GCET and the town, among others.

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.

Mayor’s testimony

During the mayor’s testimony, At-Large Town Councilor Penny Ricketts asked whether any of the money used for purchases deemed inappropriate — such as Christmas decorations and food — were asked to be repaid.

“I believe those were petty cash and were not reimbursed,” Martin said, adding GCET’s petty cash was authorized at $500.

Martin added those items sparked the initial debate about who control’s GCET’s account.

“The only irregularities have been conflicts in Massachusetts General Laws and their interpretations. That created a lack of solidified process,” he said.

Martin contends that he does not believe there is anything hidden, any money missing or that anyone has intentionally tried to slow the development of GCET.

When asked what, if any, actions related to GCET made him or other employees personally uncomfortable, Martin said he could not answer the question in open session. However, he said GCET has been the toughest issue he’s worked on as mayor, as it’s something that hasn’t been done before.

“The stress and pressure of succeeding in this environment is difficult for many, it led to additional responsibilities for some departments,” he said, acknowledging he was aware some employees were uncomfortable.

Martin said moving forward, the town and organization are committed to providing better transparency.

Residents weigh in

Several residents also spoke about the issue during the meeting’s public comment period.

David Moscaritolo applauded the mayor’s decision to remove Kelley as general manager, saying the responsibility for the project should fall on Kelley.

“I think we need to get the bottom of this and we need to get to the bottom of it very quickly,” Moscaritolo said.

Others expressed support for GCET’s mission, saying the want to see the organization succeed.

“My biggest fear with this project right now is it feels that the baby is going to get thrown out with the bathwater,” Precinct 6 Town Council candidate Sheila Gilmour said. “I think we’ve put too much money into this to let it fail.”

Precinct 5 candidate Tim Dolan agreed, saying he himself is a GCET customer.

“I cannot say enough good things about that service,” he said. “It’s faster than my old service, it’s half the price, they installed it within 72 hours of my first call.”

The council’s investigation stems from an Aug. 8 email that was leaked to the Town Council president, in which 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.

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.

The council was also scheduled to vote on whether to formally request that the Office of the State Auditor initiate an investigation into the financial administration of GCET, but the vote was not taken by press time.


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