In the Arena: GCET manager pick still ruffles feathers


Thursday, March 22, 2018

When I learned the identity of the next General Manager of GCET, Greenfield new municipal light plant-Internet provider, I had much the same reaction that a certain conservative talk show host often has when he learns a politician has secured a patronage job for a family member.

“Yet another nationwide search.”

In the present context, however, familiarity is a good thing, at least in the opinion of the chair of the commission that now runs that agency.

“This was simply the best person for the job,” GCET Board of Commissioner’s Chairman Tim Farrell said of John Lunt, who most recently served as interim GCET director and as director of special projects for Greenfield Mayor Bill Martin.

“We needed to move quickly to stabilize this organization, and we had to get that position filled,” Farrell added. “This was a no-brainer as far as we were concerned.”

Not everyone feels that way, including a couple of members of the Greenfield City Council, who are dismayed that the GCET board did not conduct a full and open process to choose a successor to the recently dismissed Dan Kelley.

It’s pretty unusual to see new City Council President Karen Renaud and At Large Councilor, and former Council VP, Isaac Mass on the same side of any issue, but they appear to be here, which became clear at the special council hearing late last year, which focused on the highly questionable management and accounting practices that occurred during Kelley’s tenure.

Renaud called at that time for an open process where female and minority applicants were encouraged to apply, but since then, the political landscape surrounding GCET has changed, and not necessarily for the better for councilors who want to have a say in how the agency is managed moving forward.

When Kelley was fired, the power to appoint a new manager lay with Martin. That’s not the case anymore. Now, the GCET board is in charge, and its chairman was none too happy to have to read about Mass and Renaud’s concerns in the pages of this newspaper, rather than hearing it from them firsthand.

“Trying to make political hay out of this process isn’t helpful,” Farrell said. “They could have come to me or the board if they had concerns.”

Farrell said the “misplaced energy” generated by such popcorn headlines does little to help boost the confidence of potential cable subscriber, which the city desperately needs if GCET is to succeed.

“It sends the wrong message, especially when things are moving in the right direction,” Farrell said. “We’re gaining momentum, signing up new customers all the time, and we’re on our way to building an operation which is financially self-sustaining.”

That all sounds good, but also eerily similar to what the council heard from the previous management not long after the town floated a $5 million bond to get GCET up and running. And it wasn’t until the council exercised its subpoena power and got a closer look that it realized how far down the wrong track this particular train was headed.

Given that, I can’t blame some councilors for being a bit gun-shy, but, as has already been pointed out, this situation is different. GCET’s in the hands of a citizen-led board, the mayor is out of the management picture, and they have a credible and familiar hand at the helm in Lunt, who clearly has a better understanding of the politics of the situation than his predecessor did.

Since he took over as interim manager, Lunt has gone out of his way to keep the council informed about GCET operations at a time when its power to influence those policies has been greatly diminished. Farrell said that though his board is overseeing things day-to-day, there will still be opportunities for the council to advise and consent in certain areas.

“If we want to do any capital borrowing, the council controls that,” Farrell said. “And we do have some capital requests already in the pipeline.”

Farrell said while the recent conversion of GCET from a municipal light plant into a town enterprise fund takes the bookkeeping for the agency out of the operating budget, the full council still has to approve the amount of that fund at the end of the fiscal year, just like it does for water and sewer operations.

“And it’s not like we don’t want the council to have input, but we want it to be constructive,” Farrell said. “In the end, we all want to see this succeed, and it will.”

Farrell says one of the keys to that success will be for Greenfield’s power players to recognize the unique nature of this particular municipal business model.

“This is difficult because we are breaking new ground,” Farrell added. “Greenfield’s never done something like this before, so we’re asking for a little leeway while we figure it all out.”

That doesn’t seem to be too much to ask, especially to save a service many feel is pretty important to Greenfield’s future.

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