Wanted: a few good citizens to help guide and monitor Burlington Telecom, the Queen City's financially troubled, city-owned telecommunications network.
The latest BT drama concerns its Cable Advisory Council, a volunteer body established under the terms of the 2005 state license that regulates the municipal telecom. The council's chairman and one of its members recently resigned, and both complained in subsequent interviews about a lack of cooperation on the part of BT's management. A third member, conservative bankroller Lenore Broughton, quit in August.
That leaves only two seats currently occupied on a council that is authorized to include up to 15 members. BT has been advertising for council recruits on its website for the past few months, but "we've had limited luck attracting members," says Stephen Barraclough, the utility's general manager.
Burlington physician Jeffrey Kaufman says he resigned as chair in part because the advisory council was "marginalized, excluded, dictated to" by Barraclough. The BT manager exhibited a "negative attitude" toward the council by failing to meet requests for information, Kaufman adds.
Mike McGarghan, who also quit this month, says BT did little to assist the council in its designated role as a liaison between the telecom provider and its customers. "It was very frustrating," McGarghan comments. "We felt like we weren't really wanted."
The council tried to involve the public by announcing meetings at Neighborhood Planning Assemblies and via Front Porch Forum, but the city did not facilitate or supplement those efforts, McGarghan says. As a result, "there were never any members of the public at our meetings," he laments.
Despite the mixed messages, Burlington Telecom has had up to three advisory boards operating at one time. A year ago, the Burlington City Council voted to disband the Burlington Telecom Advisory Council, which it had established in 2004. Councilors decided the group's work was rendered redundant by the so-called "Blue Ribbon Committee," created in 2009 to address BT's still-unresolved financial crisis. Burlington Telecom is unable to make good on $16.9 million it borrowed without authorization from the city's coffers. It also cannot pay the $33.5 million CitiBank claims to be owed for equipment essential to its operation. That dispute is now being fought in federal court.
The members of the advisory group terminated in 2012 didn't go quietly. They argued that their group played a useful role by conferring openly on BT's status and by inviting public participation in their proceedings. That self-defense was framed in contrast to the six-member Blue Ribbon Committee, which regularly held closed sessions to review BT's financial status.
The Blue Ribbon Committee is made up of three city councilors, along with Champlain College finance chief David Provost, SymQuest founder and civic activist Pat Robins and Dealer.com director of corporate development David Parker. The group was recently rebranded as the Burlington Telecom Advisory Board — not to be confused with the Cable Advisory Council that has recently been drained by resignations.
Barraclough says BT Management will soon meet with state regulators to decide "how to move forward" in regard to the depleted advisory council. In an interview on Thursday, Barraclough was reluctant to respond to the charges made by resigning members Kaufman and McGarghan. But the BT general manager did say that BT provides "a lot of information to the public" and that the council was seeking details that "didn't fall within their mandate."
By the way, how's BT doing these days?
"Awesome," Barraclough responds, reporting that the utility now has about 4500 subscribers, compared to 4200 six months ago. "BT is performing better financially than it ever has," adds the manager who was put in charge of the operation by a financial advisory firm that was called in to prevent BT from collapsing.
Sandy Baird, an attorney and civic activist still serving on the advisory council, doesn't agree with the criticisms expressed by Kaufman and McGarghan. "I find Barraclough an engaging person," Baird says.
Greg Guma, another longtime Burlington activist and the other remaining member of the advisory council, says BT management is not as responsive as it could be. He suggests the council should be enlarged to "show that BT can open up to the public."
As an example of the dysfunction that appears endemic to many BT-related endeavors, Guma notes that his own application to join the advisory council was "lost" for more than two years. That "does say something about how much effort has been placed on public enagement," he observes.