State-appointed CMEEC watchdog to step down

The state-appointed watchdog charged with protecting the interests of Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative ratepayers will resign June 27, six months prior to the end of his two-year term.

Bill Kowalski, the state municipal electric consumer advocate appointed to in December 2017, will step down by the end of this month due to family health issues and obligations.

Kowalski was the first person appointed to the position by state Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz. The post was created by state statute in response to the controversy surrounding CMEEC’s hosting of lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby for top staff, board members, their families and public officials throughout the region. The trips were the focus of federal indictments against five CMEEC officials for their roles in planning the trips.

During his tenure, Kowalski attended most CMEEC board and committee meetings and weighed in on governance issues, including rewriting CMEEC bylaws, the process to select a forensic auditor — also required by state law — and the questioning of some of the expenses the forensic audit brought to light.

In his resignation letter to Katz, Kowalski thanked her for the appointment and for her agency's staff support and said he hoped he met her expectations.

"I believe that the changes that were implemented in the CMEEC operating policies and procedures over that time will benefit downstream ratepayers for years to come, and that we have made a real difference for ratepayers as a result," Kowalski wrote.

"Bill has done a wonderful job as CMEEC's first Independent Consumer Advocate," Katz, who also is leaving in early July, wrote in an email. "He has asked the hard questions, pushed for greater transparency, and been a responsive and accessible voice for CMEEC's ratepayers."

Katz said she expects to announce Kowalski's successor "shortly." 

Kowalski credited the CMEEC Board of Directors’ reception of his new position and its willingness to work with him and to implement many changes he proposed, even though he had no authority to force changes.

“CMEEC wishes Mr. Kowalski all the best and appreciates the perspective he has brought to CMEEC governance and policy,” CMEEC Interim CEO Michael Lane said in an email statement Monday. “Many of his comments, especially with respect to CMEEC Bylaws in the area of indemnification and advancement of legal fees and Ethics and Conflict of Interest Policy have been codified by CMEEC. In that regard, he will have a lasting legacy advancing the interests of ratepayers, despite his relatively short tenure as the MECA.”

CMEEC board Chairman Kenneth Sullivan said Kowalski was professional and showed good judgment and wisdom in his interactions with the board. He said Kowalski "helped CMEEC get through a difficult time."

Kowalski made an immediate impact two weeks into his term, when he objected that CMEEC’s initial bid process for the state-required forensic audit yielded only a bid from CMEEC’s regular annual audit firm. Kowalski pushed for a new bid with broader requirements to attract an independent firm.

In late February, the CMEEC board conducted a second search and eventually awarded the bid to CohnReznick. Kowalski also sought specific information from the audit report, exposing several other incidents of alleged excessive spending, including charitable donations.

In response, the CMEEC board voted to change its donation policy, stopping all charitable donations, leaving it to the six member municipal utilities to make donations within their communities.

Also, early on — months before the Nov. 8, 2018 federal criminal indictments — Kowalski argued that the CMEEC board’s bylaws were too broad regarding whether and when CMEEC would cover legal defense costs of staff and board members accused of wrongdoing.

The bylaws were changed, but because the FBI subpoenas, grand jury investigation and federal indictments came before the changes, CMEEC has been paying legal costs of the five indicted officials.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, had led the effort to strengthen the state’s oversight of CMEEC in the wake of the Kentucky Derby controversy. Somers praised Kowalski for his accomplishments during his 18 months in the position and regretted her proposals to strengthen his position failed in the spring legislative session. The measures  — defeated by the majority Democrats in the General Assembly, she said.

“Bill Kowalski has been an amazing asset and advocate for the ratepayers concerning CMEEC,” Somers said. “He has been at nearly every meeting, always had the ratepayers’ interest at heart. He pushed to uncover some seriously questionable spending by CMEEC. He brought honor and dignity to his position and it was a pleasure to work with someone who truly cared for the people he represented.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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