Morse: Something rotten in the Bristol County Water AuthorityDecember 21st, 2011 at 6:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
By Gary Morse
Nearly two years ago, the Bristol County Water Authority moved to get a 12% hike in local water rates. The implications of this fateful request are still reverberating in the East Bay, and the path that led from a utility increase to the threat of a lawsuit against four ratepayers has now become a news story of its own.
In early 2010, BCWA went to the Barrington Town Council to explain the need for such a steep rate increase. (The BCWA Board of Directors is made up of nine directors, with the town councils of Barrington, Bristol and Warren appointing three members each.) By the end of the meeting, Councilor Jeff Brenner was moved to remark: “Yogi Berra has nothing on some of the explanations given here tonight.”
Four East Bay residents – now known as the “East Bay Four” – decided to take the lead and began trying to find out what was really going on. Along with myself, the rest of the East Bay Four are Jeff and Janice Black of Barrington, and Bristol resident Marina Peterson of the East Bay Patriots.
To say that BCWA was not receptive to ratepayer involvement is a gross understatement. Over the course of our two-year quest, certain BCWA representatives were known for yelling at ratepayers who dared to ask questions, in an effort to scare them off and ensure no one would dare come back. BCWA was also paying its attorney handsomely to run interference against the public.
At a meeting last month, Warren Town Councilor Scott Lial asked BCWA Board Chairman John Jannitto why he sent a letter on Oct. 19 to various state agencies requesting information about the East Bay Four. “We may have a purpose for it later on,” Jannitto replied. Asked if the BCWA attorney was involved, Jannitto said, “No.”
But that was not true. And though Jannitto’s letter was not authorized by the board, he used BCWA letterhead and signed it with his official title. Jannitto directed that a variety of information about the East Bay Four be sent to his home: emails, dates of meetings and conversations from the past two years.
At the Oct. 12 BCWA board meeting, director Lloyd Matsumoto asked to go into executive session to discuss bringing litigation against three individuals (myself, Peterson and “the Blacks”). But it was not on that agenda.
On Nov. 2, a board subcommittee met in executive session to discuss litigation against the East Bay Four. That session was illegal and called without proper notice. The board published that same illegal notice for Nov. 10, but didn’t go into executive session on that occasion. The board never voted to sue, and its members now say they had no intention of doing so.
Another BCWA board member, Joseph DeMelo, was quoted by East Bay Newspapers as saying “the inquiries put forth by Mr. Jannitto were discussed during executive session, but were not made on behalf of the board.” When asked what motivated Jannitto’s inquiries, DeMelo speculated, “I guess he’s maybe looking for, I hate to say it, retribution.”
But retribution for what?
The Blacks prevailed in numerous complaints filed with the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office against BCWA for illegal agendas, noncompliant public records policies and its failure to respond promptly to records requests. BCWA’s attorney billed $65,000 for defending the agency against a possible fine of $1,000. Jannitto said that the AG’s decision triggered his desire to investigate the East Bay Four. On Oct. 14, the Blacks sent BCWA a cease-and-desist notice to stop defaming them.
The East Bay Four have continued to ask an important question that remains unanswered: Why have the millions of dollars in state funds poured into BCWA since 1993 never been properly audited?
The East Bay Four caught Jannitto and Mack trying to convince the board to threaten us with a SLAPP suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation) in an effort to intimidate us into ending our inquiries and to scare off others who have been working with us. Fortunately, Rhode Island has a strong anti-SLAPP statute.
Also – and in stark contrast to BCWA – the Rhode Island Water Resources Board appropriately considered the information, concerns and questions brought forward by the East Bay Four, and has now revised its statewide strategic plan to put BCWA on a more prudent and cost-effective path than the antiquated one they had been virtually ignoring – to great expense –since 1996. A recent performance audit by B&E Consulting confirmed our concerns, as well.
East Bay Newspapers and AOL’s Patch sites in Barrington and Bristol-Warren have run numerous stories about these issues, as has reporter Jim Hummel. East Bay Newspapers ran an editorial in support of the East Bay Four, and both Operation Clean Government and the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition sent letter of support that were published in each of the aforementioned publications.
The East Bay Four certainly don’t deserve to be threatened with a lawsuit. And BCWA’s ratepayers, as well as state taxpayers, deserve to know from Mr. Jannitto and Mrs. Mack that the tens of millions poured into BCWA since 1993 will be subject to at least one proper audit. If BCWA truly wanted to regain the public trust, they would do this audit. At the moment, they don’t appear willing.
Gary Morse is a Barrington resident and a spokesman for Operation Clean Government and the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition.
Ted Nesi will return on Wednesday, Dec. 28.