Cheney Field: “I think we’re missing something.”

It’s encouraging to read a robust conversation about a proposed solar project in Northfield. One of the most interesting comments I’ve read thus far was Anne Donahue’s insight, “I think we’re missing something.”  In fact, we’re missing quite a bit.  In my view, the underlying issue hinges on local governance.  We can talk about beautiful fields, climate change, alternative options, etc. etc.  But everything hinges on the understanding of how municipal utilities operate within local government as independent enterprises. 

In brief:  The Water Department owns the field and the Electric Department is facilitating (or owns?) the project.  No matter how anyone feels about it, five people make the call.  They don’t need to listen to voters, ratepayers, or even the Selectboard.

Who is in charge of what?  Not us.

The decision makers are two elected officials and one appointed official on each board.  Over the last several years there have only been five — not six — decision-makers because one individual (Steve Fitzhugh) sits on both Boards.

Who put five people in charge of the proposed Cheney Field project?  Ratepayers who voted for the Commissioners, and residents who voted for Selectboard members.

Why does it work this way?

Northfield’s utility governing model isn’t required by State statute.  It’s just the way our Town Charter was written.  In a way, it makes sense because Northfield is small and not enough people are willing to run for public office.  But in another way, it doesn’t make sense because we’ve concentrated important decision-making power to a handful of people who serve on multiple Boards.  This isn’t a model of best practice in local government.  It’s just the way we’ve always done it.

The Business Question

A question that comes to mind is, “Who owns the project?”  Is the Electric Department going to lease Cheney Field from the Water Department?  Or is the Water Department going to own the solar panels as a customer of the NED?  This is an important question because funds can’t be mixed between the utilities.  If the Electric Department leases the land from the Water Department, then water rates might go down.  If the Water Department owns the solar panels, the Electric Department loses revenue.  I haven’t seen the details of the proposal, but I’m guessing not many others have, either.

Natural Aesthetics vs. Climate Change?

Open fields are beautiful and an important part of our landscape.  Assuming responsibility for siting local renewable energy is an important, ethical response to climate change .  Finding the right place to do it is controversial.  Meeting renewable energy targets is state mandated.  Utilities must meet their bottom lines.

All of these factors merge into a complicated soup of decision-making.  This is the reason Anne Donahue’s bit of wisdom rings true.  As in many public debates, an issue gets boiled down to a choice between two points of view.   And as with almost every issue, the Cheney Field solar project proposal is more complicated than this.  The questions should focus on what we are missing, as compared to what we already know.

So Nate, what do you think?

Great question.  I think more people should be interested in either running for local office or supporting more people to run for office.  It’s satisfying and productive to participate in decision-making.  It’s more effective than protesting single issues.  And it’s healthy for — what do we call it? — democracy.  If you don’t participate in self-governance, others will make decisions for you.

Full Disclosure

As many of you know, I’m now a teacher in Alaska.  This means I am now a seasonal resident in Northfield and I am no longer a voter here.  I’m no longer eligible to run for local or state offices, nor do I endorse or recommend any candidates running for any local or state office.  However, as a seasonal resident and former local official, I sometimes feel I can contribute to a discussion for educational purposes.

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