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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Kentucky Derby trips would not meet proposed retreat guidelines

    Norwich — Future “strategic retreats” hosted by the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative might be held closer to home, involve only agency officials and board members, with formal agendas, presentations or workshops and could cost much less than the lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby held during the past four years.

    An ad hoc committee of the CMEEC board tasked with creating guidelines for future CMEEC retreats and events met for the first time Monday at the regional energy cooperative's headquarters in the Norwich Business Park. CMEEC is owned by six municipal public utilities in the state.

    The six-member committee was assembled by CMEEC board Chairman Ken Sullivan, director of Jewett City Utilities, and included four CMEEC board members who did not go on any of the Kentucky Derby trips over the past four years. Sullivan and Norwich Public Utilities General Manager and CMEEC board member John Bilda were the only two committee members to have gone on the controversial Derby trips.

    “Our customers and communities have spoken,” Sullivan read in a statement at the start of Monday's committee meeting. “They made it clear. We dropped the ball. The time for words has passed. The time for action is at hand. I want to make absolutely certain the work that comes out of this ad ho committee speaks to the concerns of the many and speaks loudly.”

    CMEEC Executive Director Drew Rankin did not attend Monday's committee meeting.

    The CMEEC board voted to establish the committee at its Oct. 27 meeting in response to public outcry over the agency's annual four-day Kentucky Derby retreats that included dozens of participants, including guests with no direct connections to CMEEC and also featured no formal meetings, presentations or workshops. The 2016 trip cost $342,330 for 44 attendees.

    Sullivan started his list of suggestions with conditions that future CMEEC strategic retreats be held in Connecticut, and that the board obtain outside counsel to work with the board to write specific guidelines for future retreats. Others said future retreats should have defined agendas of business to be conducted and involve only board members and staff.

    The committee will report preliminary options and recommendations at the Nov. 17 CMEEC annual meeting. The committee will meet again in early December and will have final recommendations for the full board later that month, Sullivan said.

    Committee member Paul Yatcko, general manager and CEO of South Norwalk Electric & Water, said he would be “hard pressed to justify” the Kentucky Derby trips as a valuable board function but said annual or semi-annual meetings and retreats are “not unreasonable.”

    Yatcko said the committee's task is to decide how long retreats should last, who should be invited, what the agenda should be, where it should be held and what the cost should be.

    Yatcko and Bilda objected to limiting retreats to Connecticut only, because conferences and professional presentations could be held elsewhere that might be worth attending. For example, Bilda said, public power officials could meet in New York City to meet with utility rating entities or witness how power commodities are traded on Wall Street.

    Bilda said his hypothetical New York meeting would be expensive but also would have definite benefits for CMEEC.

    Bilda suggested the board obtain comparisons from the more than 2,200 municipally owned utilities and several hundred similar publicly owned power companies throughout the country on how they handle board retreats. Bilda speculated that some entities could be paying “way, way more” for strategic retreats aimed at improving board member relations, while others might pay much less for such functions.

    But David Brown, a commission member of the East Norwalk Third Taxing District, said comparisons to other utilities' practices wouldn't help.

    “The people we work for perceive that $300,000 is extravagant, and they wouldn't care if other agencies across the country spend more,” Brown said.

    Kevin Barber, director of finance and services for South Norwalk Electric & Water, said retreats should have defined structures, with an agenda of work meetings, along with social gatherings.

    Richard Tanger, a Bozrah Light & Power board member and alternate to the CMEEC board, said social aspects of retreats are valuable and help board members from different towns and utilities work together as one entity, rather than just representing their respective boards.

    Tanger said keeping events closer to home and limiting participation “would certainly keep the costs down.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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