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A Hummel Report Investigation

The Cost of Transparency

This week we take a closer look at the embattled Bristol County Water Authority, which is facing allegations of mismanagement following a hefty rate increase last year. Now the board chairman  is gathering information about four vocal critics amid talks of potential litigation. Is it fact finding or intimidation? Jim Hummel sits down with the chairman and his critics.

To see John Jannitto's letter click HERE

To see the extended interview with John Jannitto click HERE.

To see the extended interview with Janice Black click HERE.

SCRIPT

It was one of  the mostly closely-watched votes the Bristol County Water Authority had made in years. At this meeting in February 2010, the board of directors approved a nearly double-digit rate increase that would open up a Pandora's Box of criticism and scrutiny - and eventually force the BCWA to seek an outside audit of its operations.

Leading the charge have been four ratepayers who now find themselves the target of an inquiry by the authority's chairman, John Jannitto. On Oct . 19th, Jannitto sent this letter - on authority stationery - to the state Water Resources Board, asking for all correspondence by John and Janice Black, Gary Morse and Marina Peterson - and a list of any meetings they had had with water resources board representatives.

Within weeks, another BCWA director asked to go into an executive session to quote: ``consider possible litigation against three individuals.''

It all began nearly two years ago when Jeff and Janice Black asked for some information. The couple has successfully pressed numerous open records complaints against the town of Barrington and someone approached them asking for help with Bristol County Water.

 Black: ``We asked for this draft budget and they didn't want to give it to us, even though it had been presented at a public meeting, so it was a public record.''

So Janice Black began to peel back the onion, asking why the authority had not been more aggressive in developing backup water sources like this one in Rehoboth. Or why it simply didn't buy all of its water from the Providence Water Supply Board and eliminate an expensive, underused treatment plant - and the labor costs that go with it. That did not sit well with the union representing the authority's employees.

Gary Morse, now a spokesman for Operation Clean Government and the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, began to attend meetings after crunching the authority's pension numbers. Morse didn't like what he saw - or the lack of answers he was getting from the BCWA.

Morse: ``The first meeting I went to at BCWA I asked that question of the board: `Why haven't any of you sitting on the board asked the simple question of what is  the risk, what is the liability?' These people should have known but simply didn't ask the question. And I think that was by design. Ask me no questions and I'll tell you know lies kind of approach.''

Marina Peterson heads up the watchdog group the East Bay Patriots and organized a meeting 10 months ago of the authority's members and town councils and state reps from Bristol, Warren and Barrington as the crescendo of criticism grew in 2010.  Peterson said answers from the authority and its longtime chief executive officer - Pasquale DeLise - were an eye opener.

Peterson: ``Somebody got up from the audience and asked: `Does the East Providence Interconnect work?' DeLise's response was `I could turn it on tomorrow.' Yeah, he could turn it on tomorrow, but it doesn't work. See, that's the way they work. They say: `I could turn it on tomorrow.' It's like a play on words, yes he could turn it on tomorrow.''

Hummel: ``And to the average person sitting there...''

Peterson: ``They think that means it works.''

Hummel: ``But you knew differently.''

Peterson: ``Yeah. right.''

So they became regulars at authority meetings - and the Blacks successfully filed complaints with the Attorney General's office about the authority's lack of transparency and lack of an open records policy. The authority's legal counsel Sandra Mack this fall told the board she had billed $65,000 to answer all of the complaints.

Black: ``There were ways they could have just easily given us the records we asked for and complied with the laws. But (Mack) became involved and it was...it became kind of a more complicated process, she was now responding to things, in a sense, through the Department of Attorney General.''

Hummel: ``And the bottom line is, all of those are billable hours.''

Black: ``Yes, she billed for about $65,000.''

Under pressure from the three town councils that ultimately oversee it, the authority hired an outside firm to do an audit. But the Blacks, Morse and Petersen - now dubbed the East Bay Four - say the scope of the audit was watered down to exclude areas that could have been more damning.

Even so, the audit found:

The authority has some of the highest water rates in the state.

Its labor costs are by far higher than other water authorities in Rhode Island.

BCWA had not complied with state law.

And (the audit) suggested eliminating some executive positions.

And putting a freeze on all executive salaries.

Authority Chairman John Jannitto - who wrote the so-called `probing' letter of the East Bay Four - denies he ever intended to pursue litigation. So when did he get the idea to do it?
Jannitto: ``I think it was probably after receiving the report from the attorney general.

Just said okay, you know we were bombarded and we were attacked and we were challenged. Now let me see what information we can get that these people may have impaired us in some of our dealings ‘cause I know they’ve been involved with meetings with the Rhode Island Water Resources Board.”

Hummel: ``In layman's terms, are you looking for dirt on them?''

Jannitto: ``No. Not what you want to call dirt. What do you mean by dirt? We’re just trying to look for facts that I can show the public that these people - directly, indirectly through their actions - have impaired the operations of the Bristol County Water Authority.”

Hummel: ``How would they have concretely impaired...?''

Jannitto: ``Delay. All this delay. The time that we’re spending with even staff researching information for them at their request, that are redundant. They go over and over and over the same thing. You send them a reply and they send you: `Oh that’s not what I want. I want this I want that.' It goes on and on and on. We have better things to do, I think, to operate a water system and take care of the ratepayers and the public than just be spending all our time answering these inquires.”

Then there is the issue of legal fees. The authority paid Sandra Mack's former firm - Hinckley Allen & Snyder - more than $151,000 in 2010. She now works at another firm, but retains her representation of the BCWA.

But the Hummel Report has learned through the first nine months of 2010, the authority had spent more than $179,000 on all legal costs.

Mack - in documents provided to the Hummel Report - indicates she had discounted her rate from $475 an hour to $375, for the authority. Records for how much BCWA has paid for legal services this year are incomplete.

Mack tells the Hummel Report the authority budgets about $120,000 for legal fees annually - with board approval needed if it goes over that. And it did in 2010.

Black: ``She, I guess, trotted out to one of their meetings, thousands of photocopies. And she had made all of these photocopies, but from our point of view they were redundant photocopies that no one asked for. She sent us photocopies of our own letters, she sent us things we didn't even ask for.''

Hummel:  ``In your mind, make-work.''

Black: ``Make-work.  Legal make-work, right.''

Marina Peterson talked about Mack's presence at the meeting (Peterson) had organized 10 months ago.

Peterson: ``But I was surprised that Sandra Mack showed up because she wasn't invited. And that was my first clue, I was starting to get the gist of what control she had over this organization.  Not only did she show up but she fielded all of the questions.''

Hummel: ``Have you taken a close look at Mrs. Mack’s hours? And what she's actually done?''

Jannitto: ``No I haven’t.''

Hummel: ``Does she have an open checkbook, or is  there at some point cap?''

Jannitto: ``There's a cap. There’s a cap.''

Hummel: ``Do you know what the cap is?''

Jannitto: `` I don’t know just what the cap is to tell you the truth, offhand.”

Hummel: ``But who set that cap?''

Jannitto: ``I don't know how it was set. I believe it was set before I was… I don’t know. I really don't know.”

Hummel: ``Is that something you want to know?''

Jannitto: `` I haven't...it hasn't bothered me because I think we’re getting good service from her.”

Hummel: ``Do you think she’s worth more than $400 an hour?

Jannitto: ``I don’t know that that’s what she gets.”

Hummel: ``Is she worth $350? - You don’t know the rate she’s making per hour?''

Jannitto: ``I don’t really know offhand, no.”

Hummel: ``Don’t you think as chairman that’s something you’d want to know?''

Jannitto: ``Well, I'm satisfied with the results we get from her.''

Hummel: ``At whatever cost?''

Jannitto: ``Well I’m not talking about ridiculous costs.”

Hummel: ``$400 an hour is not an insignificant amount of money.''

Jannitto: ``Well, if it's keeping the board satisfied and out of hot water then I think it’s worth it.''

As for the East Bay Four?

Hummel: ``Has it become personal at all, or not?''

Jannitto: ``No. I have nothing personal with any of them. I don’t agree with them. I wouldn’t invite them to my house for Christmas dinner. But it’s not personal with me. I’ve never dealt with people quite like this.”

Hummel: ``In what way?''

Jannitto: ``I think that's the problem. They're not, they're not...to me they’re not local people who understand that the people sitting on this board are not here to give them a hard time and beat them up. These people are all dedicated community citizens.”

Hummel: ``So you don’t think they understand the nuances...?''

Jannitto: ``No I don’t think they understand the individuals that are sitting here. They paint us all like we’re bad individuals, we’re out to give the people the business and we’re taking advantage of them. And we’re not.”

Janice Black believes Jannitto's letter was an attempt to get the East Bay Four to initiate legal action of their own. At the very least, she says, it sends the wrong message to the public.

Black: ``In Rhode Island, we have to face it, this state, there are problems in this  state. And so what's happened is with a number of public agencies, it take a lot of backbone just to make even an initial request. To say: `Look, I know that I'm entitled to something and I'd like to have it please.' That can get you in a lot of trouble. That can get quite a backlash.''

Morse: ``(It's) best to shut the people up any way that they can.''

Hummel: ``Any doubt in your mind that it's a shot across the bow to exactly do that?''

Morse: ``No doubt at all.''

Jannitto: ``I think anybody has the right, the perfect right, to question anything as a citizen in this country; it’s freedom of speech. But I think it comes to a point sometimes almost like obstruction. And it starts to look like it’s costing, say the water authority and indirectly the ratepayers money, I think we have a right to try to find out and just show our ratepayers what we’ve been up against and what it may have cost us in this time.''

Black: ``I'm afraid for other  people - that's the only moment of pause I have. I think it's an absolute shame that other people who see me, perhaps, on the receiving end of a lawsuit, or even worse the threat of a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suit. Other people might say, `Well if this can happen to her, I should be quiet, because I'm too afraid.' So, I'm not afraid for myself personally. I'm afraid for The Big Chill.

In Bristol County, Jim Hummel, for the Hummel report.

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