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Because he has named me publicly and in a false way, I write to respond to John Stempeck’s recent online statements with respect to a proposed wood-burning power plant in Springfield called “Palmer biomass.” Brief background: the plant’s permit was revoked Friday by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. RMLD would have been the plant’s largest investor. Mr. Stempeck and I sit on the RMLD board.
Firstly, in a recent online letter, Mr. Stempeck named me and stated that at the February 2020 RMLD meeting, “[Talbot] and the Board approved Palmer in the energy portfolio.” This is false. A review of the meeting minutes shows no vote to approve Palmer, no deliberation on the matter, and not even any mention by any Board member of the project.
We now know that by the date of that meeting, the enormous contract (well over $100 million) between the RMLD and Palmer had already been signed by the RMLD manager. There was no prior Board involvement, much less any disclosure of the scale and controversy involved. All that came up in subsequent meetings were a couple of passing references—not deliberations, action items, or approvals.
Yet one of our policies (#19) says the Board is supposed to approve such purchases. And our “20-Year Agreement” among the four Towns we serve provides that they get an advisory vote through the Citizen’s Advisory Board. None of this happened. Our only public session Board vote on Palmer came months later – and was a 5-0 vote revisit the deal. Not approve it.
Secondly, Mr. Stempeck stated in a recent online posting that the plant would be “state of the art.” This characterization is laughable. Every relevant body, from the Springfield City Council to the Massachusetts Attorney General and now the state DEP, point to significant concerns. The DEP revoked the permit partly on concerns over air quality implications. Other types of highly efficient and small biomass plants can be “state of the art.” But definitely not the one for which the permit was just revoked—by a Republican state administration, no less.
Thirdly, Mr. Stempeck has avoided the salient point – which is the lack of board leadership in this episode in terms of contracting oversight and protecting ratepayers. I wrote this Op-Ed opposing changes to state regulation that would force ratepayers to pay an extra $175 million over 20 years to subsidize the Palmer biomass power plant—over and above the cost of the electricity itself.
But none of this—not our Board’s lack of involvement in a decision of this magnitude, not the environmental profile of the plant, and not the regulatory change creating this premium—troubled Mr. Stempeck. In particular, as chair, he refused to allow anything on the agenda discussing the enabling regulation. He did, however, send an email to the full board referencing my accurate Op-Ed on the matter and saying: “Dave, have you ever thought of becoming a science fiction author?”
Compare this behavior to that of Vanessa Alvarado, who took the time to bring the issue to the Reading Select Board—and won an unopposed bipartisan vote to draft a letter to state officials fighting the regulation change. Ms. Alvarado’s initiative, co-led by Karen Herrick, helped protect both ratepayers and the environment by taking a stand and speaking out in the public interest.
Ms. Alvarado has my enthusiastic vote for re-election. Mr. Stempeck does not.
As commissioners, we owe it to the public to do a few basic tasks: Scrutinize big-dollar contracts to protect ratepayers. Ensure there is a meaningful and appropriately public process for evaluating our General Manager and enacting important policies. Put relevant materials on the public agenda. Allow robust public participation. And tell the truth.
We can do better on all of these fronts. I look forward to a brighter future on the RMLD board and to doing my own job more effectively in the public and ratepayer interest.
The writer is a member of the RMLD Board of Commissioners and was its chair from April of 2019 to March of 2020.