Photo: Ashley Brown, former chair of the Municipal Light Advisory Board. (Youtube.com image)
In an incendiary farewell address, Ashley Brown, the departing chair of the Municipal Light Advisory Board, blasted members of the Light Board – made up of the Board of Selectmen – and advocates of a progressive solar power policy in Belmont for trading political contributions and influence to advance an energy plan which would force Belmont Light consumers to pay an unjustified subsidy to a small number of “solar zealots.”
In a 20 minutes statement at his final meeting as chair of the advisory board, Brown targeted his wrath on the Light Board’s Sami Baghdady and its newest board member, Jim Williams, who “pay attention to the Light Board only when politics and campaign contributions are involved, and pay little or no attention to matters of much greater financial stakes and risks,” said Brown.
“Their actions clearly demonstrate that their primary concern is self-interested politics not the best interests of Belmont and its citizens,” said Brown, who along with fellow veteran, Robert Forrester, were informed last week by the Light Board, made up of Baghdady, Williams and Mark Paolillo, they would not be reappointed.
When asked after the meeting about the harshness of his comments, Brown said “it’s the truth. I stand by every word.”
Read Brown’s full statement at the end of the article.
Brown and Forrester, who have served on the advisory board for more than a decade, were strong advocates for a modest payment to solar power household – which number less than 20 in a town of nearly 9,000 consumers – for energy recaptured by Belmont Light while asking for payments for infrastructure and maintenance.
Solar advocates have said Belmont is an outlier to other neighboring communities who have long held robust payments (or tariffs) to solar users – representing “pennies” to consumers while supporting alternative clean energy – which attracts solar installers to those towns. They point to hundreds of homes in Arlington, Lexington and Concord who are taking advantage of their town’s policies.
For Brown, the debate over solar policy has been hijacked by money and politics to a degree that it will impact the running of Belmont Light, which is considered a “well-run” utility by nine of ten consumers, only four years after a managerial scandal that threatened the utility’s existence.
Brown weighed in on Baghdady and Williams, saying “they have zero interest” on the operations of Belmont Light, noting that Paolillo has taken the time to understand electrical rate structures and the need for strong management.
Brown claimed Williams “cut a Faustian bargain to get himself elected” in April’s town election with the support of “the solar lobby” to advocate policy that in a round about way violated a central tenant of his run for selectman, supporting an unfunded mandate to solar advocates.
Brown said Williams has been promoting “a solar tariff that was surreptitiously written by the founder of a solar company with the objective of maximizing the author’s profits by unnecessarily raising the rates of consumers in Belmont and elsewhere, and, indeed, the costs of installing solar itself.”
Since Williams’ campaign treasurer – while unnamed by Brown, public records identify as Claus Becker of Poplar Road – who was also the leading campaign contributor is a member of the solar lobby and would benefit from a progressive tariff, Brown claimed that involvement is a clear violation of “conflict of interest” laws.
The exiting chair said Baghdady has shown an “astonishing lack of decisiveness, backbone, and policy direction” as board chair, his position on solar power dictated by reading the “political tea leaves.”
Brown specifically pointed to an April meeting with the Light Board and the staff of Belmont Light, coming a month after the Light Board voted to indefinitely delay the start of a new rate schedule – known as the Residential Rate APV –which was approved by the board in December.
Brown said Baghdady “resorted to unconscionably berating and humiliating in public, a dedicated young women staff member at Belmont Light” (later identified as Lauri Mancinelli, Belmont Light’s energy resources manager), for “thoughtfully [trying] to implement the very policies on which [Baghdady] had himself signed off before becoming the head of the Board.”
“At no point, in this dramatic reversal of position did, did he ever offer a rationale that was based on policy, economics, or anything else of substance. It was raw, money and influence-driven politics,” Brown claimed.
Brown was equally scathing in his view of “a tiny fraction of customers who have been heavily subsidized by their neighbors because of a flaw in the tariffs, hold[ing] the town hostage to their demands for continued subsidies from their neighbors.”
“They have propagandized, spread misinformation, made innumerable and completely fabricated, ad hominum attacks,” in their efforts to secure a solar policy that could provide upwards of $20,000 to each solar household over a decade, financed by Belmont Light consumers.
Brown claimed the solar advocates “turned to the traditional, and ethically suspect, methods of special interests, namely pouring even more cash into a political campaign to buy themselves a seat on the Light Board,” referring to Williams.
The result of the politicizing of the town’s electrical utility is when “Belmont consumers receive their electric bills they may well be paying not only for electricity, but also involuntarily contributing to a funds that Light Board members use to reward campaign contributors,” said Brown.
Belmont Light will not and cannot survive such a regime, he said, advocating that the Light Board be transformed into an independent body whose charge “is held accountable for quality of service, productivity, and sensible policy.”
The town’s government structure review committee drafted legislation in Dec. 2012 an outline in which the Advisory Board would be a separately-elected commission. While it was received with a great amount of support from the Board of Selectmen at the time, the proposal was never advanced to Town Meeting.
“Politics, especially of the cash and carry type is neither tolerable nor sustainable in running a municipal electric system,” said Brown.
Ralph Jones, a former Light Board member and soon to be a new member of the Advisory Board, agreed with Brown that solar advocates have dominated the agenda – “swallowing up all the oxygen in the room” – so that ambitious and creative carbon reduction programs, such as a climate action plan being developed by the town’s Energy Committee “can not get traction.”
In his final statement, Forrester said the Belmont Light “brand is sound” with its finances “is much improved” since he came on board.
“We have come a long way since the time when respected citizens of Belmont were advocating the sale of the department,” he said.
But he joined Brown in criticizing “the divisive and petty issue of small time politics” in which he unfortunately found himself at the end of his tenure.
For the handful of surprised solar advocates attending the meeting, the Brown’s “rant” was “largely unsubstantiated,” said a solar proponent who wished to speak off the record.
In fact, Becker, who was singled out by Brown, told the Advisory Board that he hoped that each side “could see each other as opponents and not as enemies, and I do note that when we talk one-on-one, it centers on what would be good for Belmont.”
Statement by Ashley Brown, former chair, Municipal Light Advisory Board.
The governance structure for Belmont Light is dysfunctional. We now have two boards, the Light Board made up of the Board of Selectmen, and the Municipal Light Advisory Board composed of appointees who are well versed in business, energy policy, and in the electricity market. One board holds all the power and virtually no expertise, while the other has vast experience and knowledge but no authority.
When MLAB was established, the members of the Light Board realized that the electricity market had become increasingly complicated and that the town needed a governance structure that included industry- and business-specific expertise. The Selectmen concluded that a board of laymen was simply inadequate to protect Belmont ratepayers and the town’s investment in the system. It created MLAB to serve that purpose, with the expectation that eventually it, rather than the Light Board, would become the governing body.
While that never happened, the members of both Light Board and MLAB collaborated very closely. While there may have been disagreements from time to time, members of both bodies shared a common objective of acting in the best interests of the town in overseeing a commercial enterprise entirely owned by our citizens. It was a shared sense of serving the public interest, not narrow political objectives, that forged an effective oversight arrangement.
That shared dedication to the public interest has now evaporated into a highly politicized, and frankly, ethical , morass, that threatens the viability of Belmont Light. What is particularly troublesome about this development is that it has developed at a time that Belmont Light is doing extraordinarily well. A very recent customer survey indicated a 91 percent satisfaction rating by customers, the record of service quality and reliability is absolutely superb, the energy portfolio is above the state’s standards for renewable energy, even though it is not legally obligated to be in compliance, and it is managing the biggest capital project in the Town’s history on an on schedule, on budget basis.
The management team, led by [General Manager] Jim Palmer, that has been assembled is highly competent and highly motivated. Moreover, because of management’s commitment and because of the frequent public meetings of MLAB and Light Board, the operations and finances of Belmont Light are more transparent than they have ever been. Finally, Belmont Light has developed, in collaboration with the Energy Committee and very effective demand side management/energy efficiency program, as well as in the process of deploying smart meters and a new billing system that will enable customers to use energy even more efficiently and with less adverse environmental consequences. It is a record to take pride in.
Rather than taking pride in these accomplishments, we have seen a tiny fraction of customers who have been heavily subsidized by their neighbors because of a flaw in the tariffs, hold the town hostage to their demands for continued subsidies from their neighbors. They have propagandized, spread misinformation, made innumerable and completely fabricated, ad hominum attacks, … and argued, almost literally, that the planet would not survive if their Belmont did not continue to provide them with substantial cross subsidies from their neighbors, to help them pay for their investment in highly inefficient rooftop solar panels and to unjustly enrich the vendors who sold or leased them.
They demand these subsidies even though they were already heavliy subsidized through tax credits and renewable energy credit programs, and despite the fact that Elon Musk, the founder of the nation’s biggest solar vendor, Solar City, told the Edison Electric Institute last week that solar no longer required subsidies to compete once carbon was internalized into electricity prices, as all of new England has done.
The debate over whether non-solar Belmont ratepayers should provide cash to solar customers (in some cases as high as $820 per year) has raged for four years. Despite the intensity, the governance system for Belmont Light remained intact and functional. In 2011, and then through implementing action last December, the Light Board made a decision that, would, over time, have phased out the local cross subsidies, while at the same time affording a seven year pay back for Belmont customers who chose to invest in solar.
In short, it would have lowered rates for non-solar customers while maintaining an attractive payback for solar hosts. At the urging of one member of Light Board, now the chair, there were also cash gifts bestowed on existing solar customers, compliments of the other ratepayers of Belmont. Not coincidentally, several of those receiving the cash handouts, for which no economic justification was ever provided, were either contributors to his campaign or were relatives of contributors.
In a public meeting he said he was giving out the cash because the recipients were “pioneers.” That contrasted to his private statements, only minutes before, that those very same people were “bullies.”
The solar lobby, not content with getting a partial loaf, then turned to the traditional, and ethically suspect, methods of special interests, namely pouring even more cash into a political campaign to buy themselves a seat on the Light Board.
They funded a very substantial part of the campaign of a candidate for the Board, who dogmatically supported the solar lobby’s party line in public, even though they were in direct conflict with his oft repeated opposition to unfunded liabilities and to local subsidies, and contrary to statements he made in private to members of MLAB. In effect, to get campaign contributions, that candidate cut a Faustian bargain to get himself elected.
Once elected, he tried, to have the Board adopt a solar tariff that was surreptitiously written by the founder of a solar company with the objective of maximizing the author’s profits by unnecessarily raising the rates of consumers in Belmont and elsewhere, and, indeed, the costs of installing solar itself.
The Light Board member has also been trying to repeal a provision of the 2011 solar tariff that requires that solar generators eventually be compensated at market value rather than artificially high rates, paid for by imposing higher prices on non-solar customers. He quite explicitly advocated that non-solar Belmont customers should pay higher rates than they would otherwise be compelled to pay in order to heavily cross subsidize his campaign contributors. He has been doing so at the behest of his campaign treasurer, and biggest non-familial contributor to his campaign also a contributor to the campaign of the current chair of Light Board, who had the gall to state in an Light Board meeting, that solar pricing was a purely political matter, devoid of technical issues, in a public meeting of Light Board. That made transparently clear that his campaign contributions were intended to buy himself a subsidy, which in his case, amounted to approximately $820 per year for the life of his solar panels, thus, probably amounting to more than $20,000 paid entirely by his neighbors in town.
Curiously, the Light Board member pursuing the contributor’s agenda, never fully disclosed the identity of the person who provided the “tariff he provided. He also failed to disclose the fact that the “tariff” he was pushing, was written by a man whose business stood to be enriched by the measure being pushed. What is particularly striking about the Light Board member’s heavier is that he ran a campaign based on opposition to unfunded liabilities, but his first action as an Light Board member was to create even bigger unfunded liabilities by not allowing Belmont Light to recover all of its fixed costs from several of his campaign contributors.
Given the conflict of interest and the failure to disclose – that fact was also not disclosed by another contributor to the same campaign in his transmittal of the proposal to the other Light Board members in which he describes the author as a “resident” of the town, and failed to identify the fellow’s business interests, an act typical of the dishonesty of the subsidy seeking lobby in town – that member of the Light Board should be prohibited from voting on any measure having to do with solar pricing in Belmont. His conflict of interest is patently clear, as is his links to the “pay to play” tactics of those who seek to put their hands in the pockets of everyone else in our town.
Intimidated by the outpouring of money and a false reading of the political tea leaves, as well as an astonishing lack of decisiveness, backbone, and policy direction, the new chair of the Light Board, decided, without giving any explanation of his rationale, to retract the December decision.
While he was unable to publicly articulate any policy reason for doing so, in private, he fulminated about the political consequences for himself if Belmont did not reinstate heavy cross subsidies for solar hosts and their vendors.
To disguise his inability to articulate any reason his complete reversal of position, he resorted to unconscionably berating and humiliating in public a dedicated young women staff member at BL, later telling her “it was just politics.”
The deed for which he berated her was that she had thoughtfully tried to implement the very policies on which the chair had himself signed off before becoming the head of the board. The young woman, as a result, felt compelled to resign her position, a critical loss for Belmont Light, because she was [its] central person in establishing and coordinating energy efficiency and carbon reduction programs.
What made the [chair’s] posture so bizarre was that he took her to task for, among other things, limiting the town’s liability for flaws in privately owned solar units, for requiring performance in exchange for payment, and for documenting the size and scale of the solar units, a matter made necessary by the nature of the cash gift the [chair’s] has bestowed on solar hosts. In effect, he not only wanted to subsidize the solar hosts, but also to relieve them of any liability for unsafe operation and to pay them regardless of whether they performed.
At no point, in this dramatic reversal of position did, did he ever offer a rationale that was based on policy, economics or anything else of substance. It was raw, money and influence driven politics. Moreover, he refused to follow a prearranged schedule of joint Light Board/MLAB meetings to discuss these matters. He made it clear that he, who by his own admission, knows virtually nothing about electricity was going to work his political agenda and would not tolerate any input from experts either MLAB or staff. Simply stated he did not want his political objectives interfered with by anyone who knew something about the subject. In short, he was insisting on governance by the uninformed, and subject to being heavily influenced by those who opened their checkbooks to clueless politicians willing to commit themselves to the self-serving agenda of those writing the checks.
Largely at the urging of some prominent people in town, including the third member of the Light Board, the chair, looking for political cover in a storm caused by his move to rescind the December, 2014 decision, announced [at] Town Meeting that a special expert committee would be appointed to come up with a compromise between net metering and the December tariff approved by the Light Board. In effect, the chair was telling an as yet unknown committee of experts what conclusion they should reach. Subsequently, the Committee was appointed.
Obviously, its recommendations remain to be seen, and the final actions of the Light Board are not yet known. Given past performance by the two members of the Light Board, it seems highly unlikely, regardless of what the committee recommends, there is little reason to be confident that the Light Board will do anything other than what is politically expedient.
For that reason, Belmont residents who do not wish to pay cross subsidize the campaign contributors to members of the Light Board, who object to the toxic effects of money and politics, should make their positions clear. For two member of Light Board, politics is all that matters when it comes to electricity tariffs., and so far the only people who are lobbying are those seeking to dip into their neighbors’ pockets.
What makes all of this even a more terrible omen for the future of Belmont Light, is that neither of the two Light Board members discussed have ever asked more than cursory questions about the large substation project, never uttered a single question about gaining pool status for the new transmission line, a multi-million dollar issue for the town, nor have they ever made any inquiry into Belmont Light’s energy purchasing or hedging strategies, one of, if not the biggest procurement activity conducted by the town. They have never even asked about pricing policy and the basis on which our customers, their constituents, are billed. Neither has any experience in or knowledge of energy markets, and neither has ever expressed any interest in learning about them, and unlike their predecessors, make no pretense of exercising due diligence in the way that corporate directors are required to do. Their oversight is strictly limited to issues they find to be of political value.
Watching their meetings, one would have to presume that the only issue of consequence is solar pricing and that that is a purely political matter devoid of substance. Simply stated, these two members of the Light Board pay attention to the Light Board only when politics and campaign contributions are involved, and pay little or no attention to matters of much greater financial stakes and risks. Their actions clearly demonstrate that their primary concern is self interested politics not the best interests of Belmont and its citizens.
Belmont Light has been able to serve the town because it has been run on a business like, non political basis, with a sharp focus on community service. The current majority of the Light Board, are now attempting to use Belmont Light as a vehicle for political patronage and favoritism. Amazingly, they do so without regard to, or even acknowledgement of, public policy or equity considerations.
While the pricing of solar energy is a public policy issue, neither of the two Light Board members being discussed have ever shown any interest in or even articulation of a policy or economic perspective. They simply pursue a course that they think is in their political interest and which rewards their campaign contributors.
So when Belmont consumers receive their electric bills they may well be paying not only for electricity, but also involuntarily contributing to a funds that Light Board members use to reward campaign contributors. Belmont Light will not and cannot survive such a regime.
The governance of the system must be reformed to assure competent, informed, and apolitical oversight. There needs to be a Board put in place that is run on a fully commercial basis and is held accountable for quality of service, productivity, and sensible policy. Politics, especially of the cash and carry type is neither tolerable nor sustainable in running a municipal electric system.