Climate Action column: Does a trade association really run local electric departments?

By Charlotte Kahn
Feb 24, 2019

Who really controls Massachusetts’ 41 “municipally-owned” electric light departments?

In theory, the electric light departments are under local control.

In Ipswich, for example, the town’s elected Select Board also constitutes the ELD Commissioners. These commissioners, in turn, appoint a five-member Electric Light Subcommittee that, in consultation with the Select Board, hires a manager, develops a long-term vision and goals, sets policies and provides budgetary oversight.

In some municipalities, the voters directly elect the ELD commissioners.

But recent moves raise the question: Are the ELD commissioners really running the show or is it being run by a trade association?

Last-minute legislation that breaks local electric departments away from the state’s commitment to “clean” and “renewable” energy standards, allowing nuclear energy, backroom lobbying and other issues contribute to this secretive atmosphere.

On Jan. 18, the Municipal Electric Association of Massachusetts, or MEAM, filed legislation at the State House with no local review or debate that, if passed, will hold the municipally-owned electric light departments to specific goals and standards through 2050.

What is MEAM?

Try looking the association up on the internet. MEAM has a skimpy
website listing five officers, a snail-mail address and no phone number.

To access MEAM’s membership list, enter an email address and they’ll make contact. Only the association doesn’t.

MEAM may not have a phone number, but it does have a lobbyist.

In fact, of MEAM’s $121,000 2019 budget, $81,000 will go to one Robert Rodophele of Ferriter Scobbo & Rodophele PC, a registered lobbyist in Massachusetts for more than 25 years.

“As such,” Rodophele writes on his firm’s web site, “I am able to interact with legislative and executive government officials, including regulators. My previous courtroom experience assists in my unique ability to understand how courts may interpret proposed legislation. For example, I represented all of the Massachusetts municipal electric departments in developing a legislative strategy to secure their exemption from the Electric Utility Restructuring Act of 1997 in Massachusetts. Since then, I have continued to ensure that such exemption is maintained in subsequent legislation.”


In 2017, Rodophele also won an exemption for the munis from the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. Rodophele argued that because the munis are under local, and not state control, they have no obligation to participate in reducing greenhouse gas emissions or in combating climate change. Rodophele threatened to take the state to court. At the same time, the munis pledged to use their local control to develop their own clean-energy standards.

The result of those exemptions from state policy, said David Ismay, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, is that “the munis are now behind the curve and still positionally opposed, as a group, through MEAM, to renewable power.”

This past year, Rodophele worked with a small group of MEAM members and legislators to craft legislation setting legally binding energy sourcing goals for the munis through 2050. Rodophele and the legislators worked in the absence of formal notice to, consultation with, input from or review by the munis’ 150 or so elected and appointed ELD commissioners. Operating in the dark -- every pun intended -- with no “local control” or even local knowledge whatsoever, MEAM undermined its own argument for the munis’ exemptions from state standards and goals.

Rick Rys, a chemical and consulting engineer directly elected by voters in Princeton as an ELD commissioner, has found it “nearly impossible to claw my way into a MEAM meeting.”

Finally successful last year, he found that he was not then invited to MEAM’s General Membership Meeting, “open to commissioners,” on Jan. 16.

MEAM wasn’t always so secretive.

Formed in 1953 and incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1970, MEAM was originally conceived to be locally governed, grounded and accountable. Its 1970 Articles of Incorporation, unearthed at the Secretary of State’s office last week for this column, identify its incorporators as representing the “consumer-owned and operated electric light and power utilities.”

The papers note one explicit purpose of MEAM is to “educate its members and the public in the principles and policies of consumer ownership and operation of electric light and power utilities; and to safeguard the principle of home rule.”

Instead of adhering to its original and legally constituted purpose, however, MEAM has shape-shifted over the years into a closed trade association that operates of, by and for the 41 muni managers and their lobbyist.

MEAM operates with little oversight and with policies and practices that reflect little to no respect for the education, aspirations and rule-making authority of the munis’ owners, consumers and their elected and appointed representatives.

Which brings us to the legislation in question.

While MEAM’s Jan. 16 meeting agenda included a review of legislation and legislative strategy by Rodophele, the managers present were suddenly asked to vote on a final draft of legislation they had received just days before while staring down the Legislature’s Jan. 18 filing deadline, with no time for review and guidance by their commissioners.

Ipswich ELD manager Jon Blair says that he voiced discomfort at being asked to vote up or down on legislation due to be filed two days later without his commissioners having reviewed it, but felt, overall, the legislation unites the munis in no-carbon-emitting goals for the first time.

Blair said he also likes the bill’s stipulation that penalties levied for failure to comply with the their own regulations to limit greehouse gas emissions go into a fund at the local level to support the transition to clean energy.

So Blair voted yes, along with the other managers.

Their unanimous support was conveyed to legislators, who signed on as co-sponsors. Co-sponsors include local state senator and senate minority leader, Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) and local state Rep. Brad Hill (R-Ipswich).

A subsequent conversation with Hill established he had had no idea, when he signed on, that the legislation reflected absolutely zero local notice, input, review or debate.

An analysis of the MEAM legislation (HD3054) by the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, found it woefully inadequate.

For one thing, the legislation focuses on “non-carbon emitting” energy sources rather than “clean and renewable energy,” opening the door to meeting the munis’ obligations through old nuclear power and even some gas in part or entirely.

The bill is also silent on long-term goals and targets for energy efficiency, energy conservation, energy storage and the necessary transition to the electrification of the heating and transportation sectors.

Ironically, the climate action network issued a report card on the munis just weeks after MEAM’s legislation was filed, ranking them on such measures as clean energy and transparency ( In its report, the climate network called on the munis, with their local constituencies and freedom to innovate, to lead on clean energy goals and standards. Instead of leading, however, MEAM’s legislation requires “no municipally-owned electric light department to change anything until 2029,” according to Oriana Reilly, MCAN’s Municipal Light Program coordinator.

MEAM’s bill is now co-sponsored by 56 legislators. Far removed from any possibility of “local control” before or after its filing, it will, if passed, legally bind the munis to its provisions through 2050.

The MEAM bill will compete with legislation Rep. Joan Meschino (D-Hull) filed with 58 co-sponsors, that keeps munis on the hook in complying with the state’s clean energy standards.

The stakes are high. Scientists tell us that we must turn the clean energy corner by 2030 or risk catastrophe and to achieve that goal, open debates on clean energy goals and standards are essential. Boston just pledged to be entirely carbon neutral by 2050.

The Commonwealth’s municipally-owned electric light department commissioners can no longer allow a closed and unaccountable organization to set its goals, threaten lawsuits against the state, draft legislation and lobby legislators on their behalf without their informed and explicit consent.

In throwing the final draft of flawed legislation at the muni managers for a take-it-or-leave-it 11th-hour vote, MEAM gave the lie to “local control,” revealing itself as a throwback to the era of closed, old-boy networks. Earth to MEAM: That era is over.

In the face of accelerating climate change, the Commonwealth’s consumer-owned electric light departments must be held accountable by the communities they serve. And if sunlight is the best disinfectant, the Municipal Electric Association of Massachusetts requires a very large dose.

Ipswich resident Charlotte Kahn is a retired researcher/writer.