June 17, 2021

Muni Matters: PAC Thinking Small with Light Board Endorsements

Local Boards Seen as ‘Direct Link’ to Climate Policy

By Meg McIntyre
Special to the State House News Service

JUNE 17, 2021 – When Marblehead voters get to the polls June 22, they’ll have their pick of candidates: 14 options for the Select Board, two choices for the School Committee and, perhaps most notably, four candidates vying for two seats on the Municipal Light Commission.
In the 41 Bay State communities that own and operate their own energy utilities through municipal light plants, it’s not uncommon for light board elections to go uncontested. In 2017, for example, the light commission race in Marblehead drew only one candidate for two open seats.

“I just know that if you stop somebody downtown in a municipal light plant town and ask them if they know that they elect the people who run their electric utility, the answer will almost always be no,” former Hingham selectwoman Laura Burns, who was elected to the light board there in May, said.

The Environmental League of Massachusetts Action Fund, which has endorsed two of the hopefuls running in Marblehead this year, is trying to change that. The group began dipping its toes into municipal light board races in 2019, and is now actively recruiting local candidates and providing them with training and support for the campaign trail.

It’s a new approach for the PAC, which has typically thrown its support behind candidates at higher levels of government such as the mayor’s offices, city councils and the state Legislature.
Executive Director Clare Kelly explained that the 41 municipal light plants in Massachusetts together control about 14 percent of the state’s energy, and these boards — which often comprise just three to five people — determine how much of that energy comes from renewable sources. What’s more, the turnout for these elections is often low, meaning a small minority of voters can have a big effect on local energy policy.

The ELM Action Fund’s goal is to fill these seats with environmental stewards, as well as to raise community awareness about the role of municipal light plants and drive higher voter turnout.
“It’s not just ‘Vote for the candidate who we think is the climate champ’ but ‘Here’s what is happening in your community and why you should care,'” Kelly said.

In 2020, five of the six candidates endorsed by ELM Action Fund won their races, according to Kelly, and four of the seven candidates backed by the group have been elected so far this year. Two will face the voters next week in Marblehead, while Jim Satterthwaite of Reading lost his race to an incumbent by a margin of just 25 votes.

The ELM Action Fund has put some financial support behind these candidates, as well. In 2020, the group provided each candidate with about $1,000 of in-kind services such as phone banking and small mailers, according to Kelly. This year the fund has contributed about the same amount in in-kind donations to each of the seven candidates it endorsed, she said, in addition to independent expenditures of $4,353 in the Reading race and $2,217 in Hingham.

In comparison, the PAC spent $32,377 in independent expenditures supporting 14 candidates in state legislative and city council races in 2020, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Phil Thayer, chair of Sustainable Belmont, has been helping with some of these campaigns. He said the strength of the ELM Action Fund’s strategy is that it’s local and less cumbersome than making policy changes at the legislative level, which can take years. He believes the approach could be applied to other local bodies like the Board of Health.

“The light plants are not answerable to shareholders anywhere else in the world, as is true with the investor-run utilities, but instead they are directly responsible for and responsive to the needs of their local constituents — the residents or the ratepayers in their towns,” Thayer said. “And so this is a really direct way to influence energy policy which doesn’t really involve the state.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean policy change is quick at the local level, though. Since being elected in Hull in 2020 with the support of the ELM Action Fund, Jacob Vaillancourt said the pandemic, and virtual meetings especially, have made it difficult to gain traction on his local board.

He’d like to see the town invest in wind power and hydroelectric power with the goal of generating enough electricity to sell it to other municipal light plants, but he’s had trouble drumming up support for these ideas. This past winter, the board did approve his idea to rent generators for emergency power during National Grid outages, which had become frequent in town.

Though she hadn’t previously considered running for office, Marlena Bita was elected to the Reading Municipal Light Commission in April after being endorsed by the ELM Action Fund. This was Bita’s first campaign, and she said the group provided a lot of useful information, from how to host a virtual meet-and-greet to how to get yard signs on local lawns.

“It was helpful that they had a Zoom call with other people running in Massachusetts towns,” Bita said. “So we got to meet each other on that and I realized, ‘Oh, there’s other people who are running for the first time ever for something.'”

Burns, who has been working with the ELM Action Fund on these races, said running for municipal light board is a natural fit for anyone interested in working on the impacts of climate change, and the group has seen several newcomers sign on during its recruitment efforts. She decided to run herself after Hingham created a committee to develop a climate action plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2040.

The climate law Gov. Charlie Baker signed earlier this year also applied the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which governs the increasing amount of clean energy that utilities must purchase each year, to municipal light plants for the first time.

“I felt like the light plant needed a plan to be part of this move toward carbon-free living in Hingham. It’s a new job for the light plant,” Burns said. “It’s 125 years old, and your job has always been to deliver a lot of electricity [for] cheap. They’ve done a great job of that, but now they have to take on a new job.”

Candidates agreed that they’d like to see local residents become more involved in the process. Now that Bita has been elected, she’s hoping to foster greater transparency on her light board and encourage more public participation in its meetings.

“Your municipal light plant is a direct link to climate control and climate change,” she said, “and it’s worth getting involved.”

[Muni Matters reports on key issues and breaking news affecting cities and towns in Massachusetts. Send news, material and tips to munimatters@statehousenews.com]

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