Fight erupts at Town Council meeting
The tension at a Town Council meeting on Wednesday, June 25, seemed headed toward a physical altercation between Councilor Chris Warfel and Cliff McGinness, Sr., one of the co-owners of the Block Island Power Company (BIPCo), when Councilor Gary Ryan stepped between the two. After separating Warfel and McGinnes, Ryan did not return to his regular seat, just to make sure things stayed cool. It did.
BIPCo President Dr. Al Casazza and McGinnes were in attendance to respond to and continue a June 18 discussion about the company’s net metering policy.
Casazza opened the meeting bluntly.
“I believe the town has absolutely no jurisdiction,” Casazza said, referring to the company’s policy. Furthermore, he said, he planned to file an ethics complaint against the Town Council for financially supporting the private endeavors of Warfel and his brother.
The meeting went immediately downhill following this statement. Tempers flared, insults were exchanged, and fingers were pointed.
“They’ve made so many technical mistakes that it’s embarrassing,” Warfel said of the power company. “They have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Warfel said that he was not alone in this feeling, and that other members of the community, including Attorney Seth Handy, felt this way.
“They can take us to court, then,” Cassazza said.
About half an hour into the meeting, Councilor Gary Ryan had to step between Warfel and McGinnes in an attempt to prevent a physical fight. First Warden Kim Gaffett threatened to adjourn the meeting if the attendees could not behave “like civilized human beings.”
Warfel has been pursuing action against the policy for several years, as he believes that it is unlawful and discriminatory. At the June 18 meeting, Warfel expressed that he wanted to pursue legal action. Town Solicitor Kathy Merolla said that because BIPCo is exempt from the state metering policy, and since the Public Utilities Committee ruled that the policy is discretionary, the pursuit of declaratory judgment action was the only route available.
This is an expensive and often lengthy process, and several of the council members felt that the subsequent change in policy would be a moot point once the Deepwater Wind project is complete.
“Is it worth the town pursuing a decision that will become moot in a couple of years?” Councilor Norris Pike asked on Wednesday.
Town Manager Nancy Dodge pointed out that even if the town decided not to get involved, ratepayers and their legal counsel can pursue action on a case by case basis. In the end, this was the path the council voted to take. Second Warden Ken Lacoste made a motion to send a letter to Attorney Handy, who had expressed interest in legal action as well, alerting him of the council’s decision and advising him that he could pursue action on behalf of his clients if he wished.
The council also addressed the concerns of summer residents Frank and Carolyn Carbone, who were in attendance at both meetings because they felt that BIPCo has been treating them unfairly since April 2013, at which point a “smart meter” was installed. Since the installation, the Carbones said they’ve had problems with their readings and billing. Despite their continued efforts, the Carbones said, BIPCo has not been able to explain the inconsistent readings. The Carbones said that the company billed them for electricity over the winter when the house was inactive.
“That’s either a mistake or fraud,” Frank Carbone said of the situation.
After Carolyn Carbone refused to pay these bills, they said BIPCo removed the meter from the property.
BIPCO said that they had talked to the Carbones in the past and attempted to explain the policy, but that they had not recently met with the customers. Gaffett said she believed the Carbone’s issue lay not with the net metering policy but, rather, with the company’s customer service. The customers, Gaffett said, should have the ability to understand the metering. Lacoste agreed and said that, while he understood the company felt the council had no jurisdiction in the matter, BIPCo should rectify the situation with the Carbones privately. He suggested that the council send an official letter to BIPCo, suggesting that they do so, and the rest of the council members agreed.
After the meeting, the Carbones met with McGinnes and Casazza in what appeared to be an amicable fashion.