Norwich City Council to hear about NPU reforms Monday

Norwich – Along with review of the separation agreement with former Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda and changes to the utilities governing board, NPU officials are scheduled to outline administrative changes proposed to improve ethics training, control travel costs and review finances when it meets with the City Council on Monday.

The council will hold an informational workshop with the Board of Public Utilities Commission at 6 p.m. Monday in Council Chambers. The meeting is open to the public but will not include public comment. Utilities board Chairwoman Grace Jones will provide an overview of the separation agreement reached on Jan. 22 with Bilda in the aftermath of his indictment on federal corruption charges Nov. 8.

Bilda and four other officials with the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative were indicted for their roles in CMEEC’s hosting of lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby for four years from 2013 through 2016 and to a luxury West Virginia golf resort in October 2015.

The separation agreement calls for Bilda to be paid $35,000 in severance, payment for 864 hours of accrued sick time, 296 hours of accrued vacation time and a $1,000 contribution to his pension. Bilda agreed to resign effective Dec. 31 and will be allowed to retire at full benefits. He must put in for retirement no later than April 10.

Acting General Manager Chris LaRose said Friday that Monday’s presentation to the City Council also will include an overview of internal changes at NPU, including regular ethics training, tighter travel expense policies and annual reviews of staffing and positions. Several of the changes are expected to be presented to the utilities commission at its Feb. 26 meeting, LaRose said.

The ethics changes include establishing a hotline for NPU employees and the public to make anonymous reports on any ethical issues and concerns at NPU. Ethics training for NPU employees and the utilities commission would be held every two years. LaRose said he anticipates the hotline to be operating by early March.

Training in state Freedom of Information law will be required for the NPU leadership team – general manager and division managers – and for utilities board members every five years. New board members would receive training upon appointment.

LaRose said NPU staff is working on a 2019-22 strategic plan that will include a “more inclusive, transparent process to align staff, leadership and the board.”

Changes were made to NPU staff travel policies in the wake of the Kentucky Derby controversy, which led to ethics violations found against four NPU 2016 Derby trip participants and former Mayor Deberey Hinchey, who also attended.

LaRose said a draft new travel policy is being finalized and will be presented to the board in February. All travel would require management approval or be included in a pre-approved budget. Meals and incidental expenses would be covered in per-diem payments based on government-allowed rates.

“We’ll make sure there will be no extravagances,” LaRose said.

NPU employees are required to travel frequently for technical training and conferences. The American Public Power Association hosts engineering conferences every year, LaRose said, and NPU water division employees travel to Holliston, Mass., for water training. Line workers attend line worker and technical school in Massachusetts each year.

NPU officials over the years have traveled to Hartford or even Washington, D.C., to testify in government hearings on utility issues. LaRose said future travel will “have more emphasis at home,” but if there are critical issues that affect ratepayers, NPU might travel to hearings, with travel expenses based on the new written policies.

c.bessette@theday.com

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