Words of caution from Mike Coughlin, Cohasset TM

by Mike Coughlin
Cohasset Town Manger

Next week on Tuesday March 13th, the Board of Selectmen will decide my fate as Town Manager. Regardless of the outcome, my wife and I would like to thank the many people who have expressed their support. Like you, we have many questions but perhaps the foremost is on Friday February 3rd, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Ted Carr described me in the Cohasset Mariner as “our terrific new town manager” and a mere four days later on February 7th I was as good as terminated.  This begs the question– what happened to change Mike Coughlin from “terrific” to terminated in such a short period of time.

From day one I have been almost a singular voice communicating my concerns and asking questions about any number of past practices in Cohasset and most publicly about the planned RFP for the water company.  In government, it is vital to ask questions.

This past week, I attended a presentation by Corporate Accountability International- an organization that likes to ask tough questions. This group has a long and impressive record of uncovering corporate abuses and its newest campaign- “Protecting Public Water” outlines the dangers of privatizing public water resources. The inspiration for the effort is the historic observation once made by Mahatma Gandhi that “There is Enough Water for Human Need but There is Not Enough Water for Human Greed” — words worth remembering these days in the Town of Cohasset.

The argument for privatization is based upon the premise that private companies can do it better and cheaper than the public sector. It is also based upon an assumption that the private sector can be trusted to safeguard the taxpayers interests and properly steward its natural resources. Nevertheless, since the crash of 2008, it seems that just about every week we read stories about banks, investment concerns, mortgage giants and other private interests breaking the public’s trust.  This past week, the State Street Corporation–the flagship of Boston finance agreed to pay $5 Million to settle allegations that they concealed information from investors.

Well– with respect to the Cohasset Water Department– we–the tax and rate payers are the investors. So its important as investors and citizens that we ask questions to ensure that important information is not concealed. Further, we must also ask whether we can really trust a private for profit company to safeguard perhaps the town’s most important public resource water. Finally, we must ask whether there is proper oversight in place to protect our interests in both the short and long term.

Commissioner Peter DiCaprio has been vocal in expressing his belief that the concession approach is the best thing since sliced bread. As an ex prosecutor, I always take such claims with a grain of salt. This past week perhaps by coincidence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a new effort to uncover financial wrongdoing. The FBI effort features actor Michael Douglas who played the infamous financier Gordon Gekko in the Wall Street movies. Douglas’s public service announcement for the FBI is a simple warning “If it sounds too good it usually is.” Like Gandhi’s observations– these are also words worth remembering these days in Cohasset.

So against this–where is the oversight– certainly not from water commissioner DiCaprio. In response to my questions, the water commission retained outside counsel proclaiming them as an entity answering to no one but themselves. The water commission also unilaterally abandoned the concept of joint management which had been recommended by the water planning group and passed by the voters at the special town meeting of June 14th. So as to oversight, their approach is perhaps best exemplified by the comments of selectmen Lee Jenkins– husband of Water Commissioner Leonara Jenkins– when he proclaimed at a Selectmen’s meeting that he didn’t care about the law.

This is not the first time I have faced such hyprocrisy. In Northbridge, I worked with the Inspector General to uncover abuses within the Northbridge Building Committee. The Inspector General published the findings in his 2004 Annual Report. In 2006, acting upon my complaint the Worcester District Attorney found widespread violations of the Open Meeting Law by members of the Northbridge Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee. The State Ethics Commission also sustained my complaint that the Chair of the Finance Committee had violated the ethic laws. Most recently, in Westport, I once again worked with the Inspector General to expose widespread abuses within the highway department. The Inspector General issued a 39 page investigatory report in June 2011 which was referred to enforcement agencies. I list this because in my over decade long tenure as a Town Manager, where I have raised questions about possible breach of the public trust, outside agencies have usually substantiated my concerns and have taken appropriate action. I believe the same will be true for those I have raised about Cohasset.

Aside from ethical and legal concerns, there is also a question as to whether privatization is a good model for any town to follow. Research conducted by Corporate Accountability International and the Food and Water Watch cite numerous examples from across the country and in the commonwealth where privatization efforts such as those being contemplated by the

Cohasset Water Commission have failed. These groups have also uncovered many questions concerning the corporate practices of some of the potential bidders frequently cited by Water Commissioner DiCaprio. For example, lest take United Water – a subsidy of the French utility giant Suez Environmental.

Just ask the City of Gloucester about that seacoast community’s experience– the citizens rose up against the proposed deal and passed a home rule petition to prevent the sale of the water company. It was just recently signed into law by Governor Patrick with Senator Bruce Tarr (R-Rockport) proclaiming it as a model for communities looking to protect their public resources.

Another firm often listed by Commissioner DiCaprio is Veolia– in addition to huge failures in big cities like Indianapolis and New Orleans, closer to home we should be asking officials in our state about that company’s experiences in the “Gateway to the Berkshires” Lee, Massachusetts and in nearby Rockland where US District Court Judge Patti Saris ruled that subsidiary acted “unfairly and deceptively” to win the contract – Once again words worth remembering and a ruling that should cause all to at least pause and question what is going on in Cohasset.

With that said, now on to Aquarian. We should all be asking questions about the January 30th e-mail from Aquarian President Charles Firoltte to Water Commissioner DiCaprio. In that e-mail President Firlotte complains about the questions I was raising about his company. Besides implying that someone should issue me a gag order, the President of Aquarian goes on to acknowledge his company’s involvement in the development of the RFP stating that ” I would have thought that given our willingness to meet with you on a few occasions, offer a template contract and have my Macquarie colleagues spend considerable time with you with no expectation in return other than fair treatment, would not subject us to this kind of treatment.”

And what is the treatment that the President of Aquarian complaining about? The fact that I dared to ask a question about his company. Further, does anyone truly believe that Aquarian would spend “considerable” time with commissioner DiCaprio only out of the goodness of their corporate heart? In my mind, Aquarian met with commissioner DiCaprio because it would ultimately improve their companies chances of winning a lucrative contract As to President Firoltte’s desire for fair treatment, its kind of a funny comment from a corporate executive who considers his company’s questionable record of service and history of rate increases “fair treatment” of his customers in Hingham, Hull and North Cohasset. So in his mind– my mortal sin was to ask questions about a possibly tainted process– well last time I checked– it was my duty.

And there lies the ultimate question for March 13th. The Board of Selectmen is set to terminate for no cause because by their own admission there is no legitimate cause. So why am I being let go– what happened to change me from “terrific” to “terminated” in less than a week? Well that is a question that only the Selectmen can answer but in my mind it may be as the President of Aquarian implies –– that I asked one question too many.

© Copyright 2012 Tanna K, All rights Reserved. Written For: Tinytown Unleashed