Belchertown officials blast Hampshire Council of Governments, threaten to withdraw

  • Todd Ford, who is the executive director of the Hampshire Council of Governments, walks in the tower of the Hampshire County Courthouse during a tour he led Friday.

  • Todd Ford, left, who is the executive director of the Hampshire Council of Governments, leads a tour of the old section of the Hampshire County Courthouse, Friday.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Belchertown officials took the Hampshire Council of Governments’ leadership to task in a harshly worded letter last week, calling for action on “a long list of failures” and what they say are high employee turnover rates within the organization.

“As a direct result of the false starts, failed programs, broken promises and questionable management practices of your current director, the Town of Belchertown may consider restarting the process of withdrawing as a member community unless appropriate change is implemented,” reads the letter, dated Thursday and signed by Select Board Chairman George “Archie” Archible. “The time for accountability has arrived.”

The letter follows the resignation of Lee Frankl, deputy director of operations, whose last day is Friday. Reached by phone Tuesday, Frankl declined to give his reasons for resigning. Ed Ferrara, data communications and marketing specialist, also resigned and is leaving at the same time.

The council is a 15-town consortium, representing mostly rural towns in Hampshire County, that pools regional resources to provide services to its members. Fees vary from town to town, based on population and services.

After the state’s Department of Public Utilities rejected the council’s residential electricity aggregation program last year, some have questioned its ability to remain relevant.

Despite the criticism, council Executive Director Todd Ford said the agency succeeds in saving taxpayers money and turnover is a non-issue.

“Some people have moved on to greener pastures, like any business or government,” he said. “I don’t see it as a concerning event.”

The letter lists items Belchertown leaders say require “immediate intervention” — including the council’s 2016 annual report, which they allege is “jam packed with misrepresentations and/or exaggerated cost savings.”

Town Administrator Gary Brougham said Tuesday Belchertown officials were instead able to save money by pulling out of the council’s municipal aggregation program and handling electricity procurement directly with brokers, who he said offered power at 2 to 3 cents less per kilowatt hour.

“That’s $100,000 (per year) Belchertown used somewhere else in our town operation,” he said.

“I’m not OK with overpaying and that’s why we don’t choose to participate in other programs the council offers.”

Ford, who has been executive director of the council for approximately five years, argued claims made in the letter are incorrect, and that Archible isn’t familiar with the inner workings of the organization.

“He doesn’t work with me,” Ford said. “He doesn’t work here.”

Belchertown Select Board Chairman William Barnett, however, is also chairman of the Council of Governments Executive Committee. Barnett, who was not present at the Oct. 11 meeting at which the Belchertown board discussed the town’s grievances with the council, did not respond to phone messages seeking comment Tuesday.

The letter also referred to a “failed municipal accounting program,” which Brougham said has negatively affected neighboring Granby.

It also pointed to the council’s inability to deliver on its long-standing promise to bring a residential electricity program into fruition, saying the application was improperly presented.

“After months of unanswered discovery questions and abrasive comments, the petition was denied for good reason,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately all Director Ford could offer those communities who waited patiently for the promise of savings for its residents was one line, ‘we are all disappointed.’”

Brougham called the attempt at electricity aggregation “a wild goose chase” that he estimates cost the council $1 million in consultation and legal fees.

“That could have been used for more gainful things and it was money that belonged to all of the member communities,” he said.

Brougham, who estimated Belchertown’s current dues to the council at $10,000 annually, said the letter was a call for change.

“Quite candidly, in the long run I don’t think the Council of Governments can stand another year or two of this unaccountability,” he said.

Ford said these issues would not be discussed during the council’s Thursday meeting, but an agenda for the 5 p.m. meeting of the Executive Committee shows there will be time allotted for the “executive director’s performance evaluation form.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.