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Energy co-op bans Kentucky Derby trips

Norwich — Lavish retreats to the Kentucky Derby are prohibited for officials and personnel of the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative under new rules approved Thursday by the organization's board.

Future trips, now termed strategic workshops, would be limited to the New England states, New York or New Jersey under the newly passed rules unless a venue farther afield is specially approved by the board. The workshops could run only two to three days, not counting travel time to get to the retreats, compared with the four-day Derby trips.

Unlike in the past, retreats would require agendas as well as the taking of meeting notes and could be attended only by board members, CMEEC staff and associates involved directly in the energy co-op's business, such as speakers, presenters and meeting facilitators. At least half of the time would have to be spent on CMEEC business.

"CMEEC is trying to be proactive and put forward policies reasonable to all," said board Chairman Kenneth Sullivan in a phone interview after the meeting.

The board is expected to address the issue of inviting spouses and guests of the energy co-op's staff and board at a later date. Spouses, as well as Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey and Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda, were among those who attended this year's Kentucky Derby trip that included 44 attendees at a cost of more than $342,000.

Sullivan said the board would be looking at benchmarks of how other similar organizations operate in regard to spouses and guests attending retreats.

"It encourages attendance," he said. "Board members are more likely to go if their spouse can go." 

The changes in the organization's trip policies came from the recommendations of an ad hoc committee headed by Sullivan, director of the Jewett City Department of Public Utilities. They occurred after public outcry about the Kentucky Derby trips, which had run for the past four years, and as both Hinchey and Bilda, along with others, faced ethics complaints for their participation.

The vote to effectively ban future Kentucky Derby retreats occurred the same week that state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, announced that she was filing legislation along with three other local legislators to increase the transparency of CMEEC trips. The bill would require cooperative retreats to be held in the state, be approved at a public meeting and include a public list of participants with ties to the organization.

Osten's bill was co-sponsored by state Reps. Emmett Riley, D-Norwich, and Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme.

Osten said Thursday that she appreciates the CMEEC board looking at the issue but still believes all workshops should be held in Connecticut, which by law is where board meetings are required to be held. She also said any trips should be approved in the minutes of board meetings.

"I think the people have clearly spoken: They want more transparency," Osten said in a phone interview. "People usually support things if they know what you're doing."

Sullivan said that if Osten's bill passes, the board would have to re-examine the new trip policies that allow retreats out of state.

"No formal board of directors' meeting will be conducted outside of Connecticut," he added in an email.

The Kentucky Derby trips have cost more than $1 million over the years, paid for by CMEEC, which is owned by six municipal utilities, including Norwich Public Utilities, Jewett City Utilities and Groton Utilities. Groton Utilities owns Bozrah Light & Power.

CMEEC utilities serve more than 70,000 customers, according to its website. The organization was formed in 1976.

The Kentucky Derby, also known as the Run for the Roses, is one of the three key races during the season in horse-racing's so-called Triple Crown.

l.howard@theday.com

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