Utility ratepayer advocate reviews work in first 10 months

Norwich — The state municipal utility consumer advocate will focus on financial issues and finding better ways to assess how the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative is performing, now that several key issues have been resolved.

Bill Kowalski, appointed last December to the state-mandated position of municipal electric ratepayer advocate, held the first annual public forum Wednesday, required every October in the law that created his position.

Kowalski reviewed several key issues, including CMEEC's enacting of stronger ethics rules, restricting future legal costs for alleged misdeeds by CMEEC officials and improving public access to the cooperative's business.

Kowalski next will look ahead at future activities to help make the electric cooperative more responsive to its 70,000 member ratepayers. CMEEC is owned by its six municipal utilities: Norwich Public Utilities, Groton Utilities, Bozrah Light and Power, Jewett City Department of Public Utilities and two utilities in Norwalk.

About a dozen people attended the forum, including CMEEC officials, board members, municipal leaders and a few CMEEC utilities’ ratepayers.

Kowalski said much has been accomplished since he was appointed to the position created in response to public outcry over CMEEC-hosted trips to the Kentucky Derby for dozens of top staff, board members, public officials and their guests for four years, from 2013 to 2016.

Kowalski cited improvements including CMEEC’s rewritten ethics code, tight new travel policies that keep retreats and meetings in-state and new conflict-of-interest policies that ensure public disclosure of business or personal relationships between board members and staff and CMEEC contractors.

On Tuesday, the CMEEC member delegation approved new bylaws language recommended by Kowalski that restricted legal cost indemnification of board members and CMEEC staff in future allegations of wrongdoing, eliminating language that called for CMEEC to pay legal costs in all allegations.

Kowalski said CMEEC’s staff and board cooperation was crucial in making changes, noting he has no enforcement authority.

The state law that created Kowalski’s position also required a five-year forensic audit of CMEEC’s finances. The audit became controversial when CMEEC initially received only one bid and awarded the contract to its regular annual auditor. Kowalski brokered bid specification changes and asked for a second bid process.

The new selected firm, CohnReznick LLC, is expected to complete the audit by late October or early November, CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin said.

Kowalski will review the audit and will continue to work with CMEEC officials on the best way to compare CMEEC’s financial performance. The cooperative now compares its wholesale rates to Eversource, while Kowalski has suggested a better comparison would be to wholesale rates of other nonprofit cooperatives, especially those in the New England energy market. But obtaining comparative data has proved difficult thus far, Kowalski said.

For the rest of 2018, Kowalski said he wants to delve into external factors that drive CMEEC, including wholesale electricity markets, bond markets for financing and contracts with outside entities.

Only one public ratepayer spoke at Wednesday’s forum. Michael Boucher, a Groton resident and frequent critic of CMEEC and Groton Utilities, said he remains unconvinced the revised ethics code, bylaws and conflict-of-interest policy will improve the cooperative’s governance. Boucher called for a third-party overseer to review ethics complaints. He said the new ratepayer appointments to the CMEEC board, also required in the state law, were little more than political appointments, he said.

Boucher said the public still has limited access to CMEEC’s finances and how the money is being spent, while CMEEC officials have “unlimited access” to the funds, and those people decide how the money is spent.

“What good is an ethics policy policed in house by the very same people who had no problem going to the Kentucky Derby in the first place?” Boucher said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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