County Assembly Supports Audit Of Cape Light Compact
By: Michael C. Bailey
Amid expressions of gratitude from the public and grumbling from county officials, the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates last week formally called for a comprehensive audit of the Cape Light Compact (CLC).
The Special Committee on Inquiry into the Cape Light Compact and Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative (CVEC) was formed in August in response to intense public outcry against CVEC in particular. Residents, mostly from the Mid-Cape area, in late 2010 began petitioning the county for information about CVEC’s administrative and financial practices, and in 2011 that turned into a series of in-person appeals to the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners.
Frustrated at the commissioners’ lack of satisfactory response to their concerns, the residents turned to the assembly and asked the county’s legislative body to conduct a formal inquiry.
The strongest recommendation in the special committee’s report, the result of that inquiry, called for the county to refer the entire matter to the offices of the Massachusetts Attorney General and Inspector General, and request of those offices “a comprehensive forensic audit and review of the operations of these two organizations.”
Although no one on the special committee believed the leadership of the CLC or CVEC were engaged in any intentional and malicious wrongdoing, the committee said that an audit of their finances was “necessary to protect the public interest.”
CLC and CVEC officials maintained that the conclusions drawn by the special committee were erroneous as they were based on, in the words of County Commissioner William Doherty, speaking in his capacity as chairman of the CLC’s board of directors, “numerous inaccuracies and statements not supported by facts and data.”
Mr. Doherty responded to claims that the CLC has never filed with the county a formal annual operating budget by pointing out that the organization’s budget is filed with the state, specifically, with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, and does not go through the county.
“Just because the [CLC’s] energy efficiency budget is not in the format of a county department budget is no justification for repeatedly stating and insisting there is no [operating] budget,” he said, adding that prior to 2009, when the CLC governing board assumed the duty of reviewing and approving the budget, that responsibility was handled by the assembly.
Mr. Doherty urged the assembly to withdraw the report and rewrite it with input from the county’s legal counsel to ensure factual accuracy.
Preston G. Ribnick of Wellfleet, one of the citizens who spearheaded the push for a county review, refuted Mr. Doherty’s claims about factual inaccuracy. He told the assembly he reviewed formal responses to the report filed by CLC and CVEC officials, and found them “completely deficient” in responding to the issues raised by the special committee.
“The actions of CLC and CVEC have not been missteps of well-meaning but uninformed boards of citizen volunteers,” he said, but were the result of “careful calculation and deliberate action.”
Christopher Powicki of Brewster, president of the Cape and Islands Renewable Energy Collaborative, took a more measured position. While he acknowledged the CLC’s efforts over the years and the benefits Cape Codders have realized because of the organization, he said “there is clear evidence that some consumer interests are being compromised by the way that these organizations are going about their business.”
“Though I might disagree with some of the language in the report and I think there are errors that deserve correction,” Mr. Powicki said, “I think the recommendations [the special committee] came forward with are in the interests of the public.”
After an hour of public comment, the assembly took up the matter, and Falmouth Delegate Julia C. Taylor immediately pointed out a potential problem with the county taking any sort of formal action against either the CLC or CVEC.
“They are not part of county government in an official sense,” she said, “and the assembly and the commissioners do not have the kind of power that, I think, would be necessary to address some of the issues that are troubling people.”
“I honestly believe that they are issues that have to be resolved by the boards of CVEC and CLC, and the way to encourage those board members to be interested in those issues is through town selectmen,” who are responsible for appointing their town’s representatives to the Cape Light Compact, Ms. Taylor said.
However, because the county acts as the Cape Light Compact’s fiscal agent, Ms. Taylor supported the concept of conducting formal financial audits, and presented to the assembly a resolution calling for the CLC to be included in the county’s annual auditing process.
Leo G. Cakounes, Harwich delegate and member of the special commission, opposed the resolution on the basis that it would replace a full forensic audit, which would look back at several years’ worth of CLC finances, and doubted a county audit “is going to really address the issues that the subcommittee, and myself personally, would like to further look into.”
Ronald J. Bergstrom, Chatham delegate, speaker of the assembly, and chairman of the special committee, admitted he was “kind of torn on this.” He viewed Ms. Taylor’s resolution as a “conciliatory gesture” toward the CLC and CVEC, but “I haven’t seen a lot of conciliation” from those organizations in return.
“What I’ve seen is denial,” he said, and he supported the forensic audit approach—which, he stressed, should not be taken as an inherent allegation of wrongdoing by CLC and CVEC officials.
John J. Ohman of Dennis argued that the report and Ms. Taylor’s resolution were two separate documents, and approving one did not necessarily override the other, although Ms. Taylor clarified that she did intend her resolution as a substitute for the report’s audit recommendation.
The assembly passed the resolution with 74.68 percent of the weighted vote. Ms. Taylor, Richard Anderson of Bourne, Marcia R. King of Mashpee, and Thomas K. Lynch of Barnstable voted in favor of the resolution, James J. Killion of Sandwich voted against it.
The full assembly then voted unanimously to direct the special commission to craft a new draft that responds to feedback from the public and from CLC and CVEC officials, and then re-submit the revised report to the county.
The report also recommended that county officials should be barred from serving as members of either organization’s executive boards: E. Mark Zielinski, county administrator, who represents the county on the CVEC board of directors; Margaret T. Downey, assistant county administrator, who acts as administrator for the Cape Light Compact; and Mr. Doherty.
The subcommittee further recommended that all board members and officers for the CLC and CVEC be required to undergo the same training on the Open Meeting Law that county government officials undergo; that the CLC and CVEC end the practice of using the same legal counsel; and that CVEC becomes a fully independent entity that does not rely on county ratepayer funds to subsidize its operations.