Sparks Fly At Belmont Light GM Performance Review

 Photo: A tale of two cities at Town Hall: (left) Jim Williams, Adam Dash, James Palmer.

Tempers flared, and accusations flew between the governing board of the town’s electrical utility and its general manager James Palmer as the two sides tussled during a discussion of Palmer’s annual performance review on Monday, July 17.

Residents would have thought they had entered Charles Dicken’s novel, “A Tale of Two Cities” as the overriding theme at the meeting of the Light Board – made up of the Board of Selectmen – was “the best of times” and “the worst of times” of Palmer’s tenure running the 119-year-old independent electrical utility.

Light Board Chair Jim Williams laid out board’s conundrum with Palmer in a nutshell; the general manager is “outstanding” running the utility that services 11,250 customers, but as a member of town management, “not so much.” 

With the review to be the foundation of upcoming multiple-year contract negotiation with Palmer – delayed by six months due to a misunderstanding – the Light Board noted it would weigh Palmer’s expertise in running a successful service while alienating many town officials.

Unlike a standard top down employee appraisal which was conducted in the past, Palmer’s assessment was a 360 review which enables a group of coworkers and officials to provide feedback on his overall performance. (The complete report is available via public records to request through the Town Clerk’s office)

The review demonstrated Palmer’s highest quality is his self-confidence including a positive attitude and an “I can do it” way of thinking. The Light Board gave high marks for Palmer’s take charge approach overseeing the construction and commissioning of the new Blair Pond substation, completing it on time and nearly $3.4 million under budget. 

But the analysis also spotlighted Palmer’s peers view the general manager isn’t the best at people skills, receiving “very low” marks in showing respect for other’s opinions and ideas while not creating an open atmosphere within the department and around town. 

According to the board, Palmer’s brusk attitude has alienated the general manager from nearly everyone in town. Light Board member Mark Paolillo said over the past three years, “I can’t name one town department which you don’t have problems with” then listing half a dozen agencies off his head.

“We need someone in this role with strong people skills, and you don’t get along with anyone in town,” noted Paolillo. 

That “go-it-alone” approach resulted in was one of Palmer’s biggest missteps in the board’s view when this year he unilaterally rejected a memo on clean energy regulations from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection on the grounds the state did not have the authority to impose those rules on a municipal utility.

Dash noted he and other members only heard about Palmer’s solo action through a media report.

“Maybe if it were brought to us we would have agreed, but we never had that conversation,” said Dash, who said his decision goes against the town’s Climate Action Plan which was voted overwhelmingly by a past Town Meeting.

“You had no right to do that,” said Paolillo as Palmer countered that he followed other utility decision.

Also, the board noted Palmer’s reluctance earlier this year to inform the Board of Assessors of the value of the new substation, which when it was released, provided Belmont a sizable tax advantage as well as “significant deficiencies” and delays in providing information during the annual audit process.

Palmer said he was shocked by the degree of the negative comments from town departments coming from the 360 review process that he said was used for the first time by the town in evaluating town officials. 

From Palmer’s perspective, the “cause of this strained relationship” is due to the lack of scheduled time between him and the board to discuss business, which relates directly to the series of disputes he has had within the town. 

He said one  “solution” included moving forward with a past suggestion of creating an independent commission that isn’t part of town government to oversee the Light Department.

He recalled when becoming general manager in 2010, which he said was in turmoil at the time, he worked closely with the then Municipal Light Board Advisory Committee, a 10-member board which acted as an unofficial conduit between the Light Board and the department. 

Under guidelines established by the Advisory Board, Palmer said he built trusting relationships with the MLAB and town officials. He expected the town to approve the new independent board in 2014, but due to changes to MLAB membership and mission which caused its virtual collapse, the Light Board has taken a greater oversight role over the Light Department which Palmer believes has sowed the seeds of distrust.

But Light Board Chair Williams told Palmer that while he can advocate for a new governing structure, “when you meet with the board, that’s the government” he has to work with now. Pointing to a conversation he had with a Belmont Police official, Williams said that agency “figures a way to manage” with the structure they have at the time.

Palmer said he was willing to “go more than half way” to work with town departments in a new open

With so much tension in the Selectmen’s room, even board members were snipping at each other on points of discussion. By meetings end, the board and Palmer had not resolved how they would “move forward” or if they could. 

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