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June 10, 2011

Our View: Lawsuits, spending put PMLP in a bad light

Be it the mayor, the City Council, or a blue-ribbon panel of citizens, somebody should undertake a thorough review of operations at the Peabody Municipal Light Plant.

This week brought yet another story about allegations of gender discrimination at the utility, which provides electricity for homeowners and businesses in Peabody and Lynnfield. Salaries there are through the roof — light plant manager William Waters was the highest-paid employee of the city in 2010, earning $174,354. And during a time many municipal employees are being asked to accept wage freezes, the Electric Light Commission continues to hand out generous raises.

The latest court case involves longtime employee Josephine Amico's claim that she was unfairly bypassed for the business manager's position. Amico's complaint was previously dismissed by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination; but in 2009 the plant had to pay $112,000 to another female employee who claimed she was unfairly bypassed for promotion. The attorney for the plaintiff in that case described the operation as "an old-fashioned boys' club."

The management and commission have always hung their hats on the fact that electric rates remain low compared both to those charged by the private utilities and even other municipal light companies. But those rates have begun to creep up in recent years. Nor should they exempt management from scrutiny.

A major problem is that the utility has historically been allowed to operate under the radar. There is normally little interest in the election for spots on the commission that oversees the light plant; and unlike with Danvers' municipal utility, in Peabody there is virtually no accountability to the executive branch.

Beyond the allegations of gender discrimination — Amico's case is the third to have surfaced in three years — there are aspects of the utility's operation that merit review. There were those raises negotiated in 2009, for instance, which were not made public until after that November's election along with the news that a rate increase would be required to pay for them. And why does the plant's business manager, who also has an assistant, make almost as much ($98,215.78 vs. $102,136) as the finance director for the entire city? The Peabody Municipal Light Plant began life in the early part of the 20th century as an arm of municipal government, but gained its autonomy after World War II due to concerns that the administration in City Hall was not investing enough money to keep the operation functioning properly. We think the time is past due for another thorough review of how this monopoly operates.