The final meeting of the Burlington Telecom Advisory Committee (BTAC), before its abrupt replacement on Monday by the Burlington City Council, lasted less than 15 minutes. And the only item on its Oct. 9 agenda was the confusion of its members about why the committee was about to be disbanded.
Independent Councilor Karen Paul, who presented the resolution to replace BTAC with members of a Blue Ribbon panel and three council members, explained that the move will “create a more efficient oversight body.”
Hours before the vote, Mayor Miro Weinberger endorsed the move, which already had solid Democratic support.
But Bradley Holt, BTAC chairman, who was appointed to the committee only one year ago, called the timing “unfortunate”and expressed the committee’s view that “without the BTAC, transparency into Burlington Telecom’s operations will become almost non-existent.”
Holt read a prepared statement that accepted the political nature of the process, but pointed out that the Blue Ribbon Committee has operated largely in secret. There are valid reasons for some level of secrecy, he said, but in many areas “transparency better serves the interest of the public.”
“I’m not thrilled about this path,” said Republican Councilor Vince Dober, who ultimately voted for the resolution. Not all areas of the city are represented on the new board, he said, and he proposed an unsuccessful amendment that would have added a councilor and “one citizen.”
Three of the seven members on the BTAC lived in Ward 1. None lived in Ward 7, Dober’s New North End neighborhood.
Progressive Max Tracy, one of two councilors who voted no, questioned how the original Blue Ribbon Committee members were selected, and called for an “open and accessible process.”
“I don’t think we’ll solve the problems by removing oversight,” he said.
Independent Councilor Sharon Bushor, the other no vote, called the move “a missed opportunity to create a different structure,” suggesting that the committee could have been broadened instead.
“There is still citizen oversight,” Paul responded, pointing to a separate Cable Advisory Council (CAC) that looks at programming.
Both the advisory council and BTAC have had problems. Last September, for example, a regular BTAC meeting had to be canceled because the committee didn’t have enough members to reach a quorum, according to a note on its website.
Prospective members of the CAC apply locally, but must be approved by the Public Service Board. In 2010, several CAC members whose terms expired were not replaced for almost a year.
In 2011, a merger of the two groups was considered, said Amber Thibeault, manager of government and regulatory affairs. However, the members of both bodies didn’t like the idea, and making that change would have required PSB approval. The CAC’s formation was mandated under BT’s certificate of public good.
The “merger” approved on Monday does not require such outside approval.
The new Burlington Telecom Advisory Board (BTAB) will include Blue Ribbon Committee members David J. Provost, a vice president at Champlain College; Pat Robins, chairman and founder of SymQuest; David Parker, director of corporate development for Dealer.com; Council President Joan Shannon, and Councilors Paul and Vince Brennan.
Members of the now defunct BTAC include Holt and six other Burlington residents. At their final meeting, Nina Parris, one of three members who attended, asked why the group was being dissolved so abruptly. No mention of such a possibility shows up in previous minutes.
Russ Elek suggested that there was confidence in the Blue Ribbon members, calling them “higher stakeholders in the BTV community.” According to minutes of the Oct. 9 meeting, Parris concluded that that council was saying “that the big guys with money count while the little guys don’t matter.”
Holt remarked that he had expressed frustration to Shannon about the decision, and suggested developing a group statement.
The resolution passed Monday replaces both BTAC and the Blue Ribbon Committee with one board that is expected to advise BT’s management, the mayor and the City Council “on operational matters, potential partners, and issues relating to pending litigation” and make recommendations “on any matter concerning BT for which action is required.”
The City Council remains financially responsible for oversight of BT operations, the resolution notes, but “there is a continuing need for a group of citizens with a background in business to regularly review and advise.”
Democrat Councilor David Hartnett felt that the change “kind of cleans it up,” although the process of selecting members “could have been better.” Democrat Councilor Chip Mason favored a small committee with members who have relevant areas of expertise. Progressive Vince Brennan agreed, suggesting that large committees are “unwieldy.” Brennan has a seat on the new board.
Dober pointed that that members of the Blue Ribbon Committee were originally selected not because they have background in telecommunications, but rather because they are “more business oriented.”
Weinberger spoke briefly in favor of the new board’s expanded role, which is expected to include advising on possible investment partners and monitoring the lawsuit brought by CityCapital after BT terminated a multi-million dollar lease. He described having one group handle “all aspects of BT” as a move away from the status quo.
“In a time of great turmoil and skepticism, the individuals who will serve on the BTAB have earned the public’s trust over the last three years during their service on the BT Blue Ribbon Commission and my trust during my first six months as mayor,” Weinberger said.
Shannon added that “having different boards overseeing different aspects of BT has left holes in the oversight of the organization. It also has caused confusion regarding oversight responsibilities. One board with clear authority and clear direction will have a holistic view of this enterprise, be more accountable, and better able to advise the council on all aspects of BT.”
The BTAC was originally established by the City Council in 2004 to “include a measure of citizen input and oversight into the development and deployment of the telecommunications project.” Three positions were initially authorized, but the membership was increased by two in both 2005 and 2006. The terms were three years. An Oct. 12, 2004, resolution stated that the TAC should “report at least quarterly to the City Council.” But it took until 2006 to begin regular meetings, and for Mayor Peter Clavelle to invite members to City Hall for a meeting.
In 2008, a decision by BT’s general manager to remove Al-Jazeera English from the cable television lineup – without the BTAC’s advice – sparked a heated debate. More than 75 people attended the committee’s May and June meetings. Ultimately, both BT oversight bodies agreed that Al-Jazeera should return to the lineup.
In December 2009, the City Council clarified BTAC’s role and responsibility, including advising on operations and financing, reviewing financial documents, and consulting with management on marketing and customer service. A resolution also required members to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
In its 2012 report to the City Council, the committee concluded that “BT has been running smoothly under the management of Stephen Barraclough and the Dorman & Fawcett consultants,” and said that interest expressed by potential investors suggests that the enterprise and business model remain viable. The report concluded with the hope that committee members could become “more directly involved with the Blue Ribbon Commission deliberations and decision making process, in order to ensure that the best interest of the citizens of Burlington is taken into account as they search for an investor.”
“There is a large group in the city that wants to make sure that BT stays at least partially in the public’s hands,” noted what is likely the last BTAC annual report, “there is a large group who wants to make sure that the city is repaid the $17M. We believe that these interests can both be represented in the deal that is worked out with an outside investor.”