Madison solar projects raise questions about transparency, bid process

Solar panels collect power on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. The handling of a group of solar power projects in Madison has prompted concerns.

MADISON — A firm whose principal officer also is chairman of the town’s Energy & Efficiency Committee has been contracted to fund eight solar projects in town since 2016 and helped to draft the request for proposals for a recent proposed solar carport project, records show.

Committee Chairman Howard “Woodie” Weiss is one of two principal officers of Star Power Energy LLC. His firm has entered into a Power Purchase Agreement with Madison whereby it finances various solar projects in exchange for certain benefits.

The company that has installed the solar systems, Sunlight Solar, represents a third entity in the process.

With a recommendation from Director of Facilities Bill McMinn favoring Sunlight Solar, Star Power Energy was poised to finance another endeavor — solar carports at the town’s high school and middle school. But the project was put on hold in recent Board of Selectmen meetings.

Officials have emphasized that the Energy & Efficiency Committee serves in an advisory capacity and does not have voting power in approving projects, though members can suggest which projects the town take on.

“Their job is to identify opportunities for us to be better world citizens and be in a better position to save the taxpayers money,” said Democrat Selectman Al Goldberg, who serves as the Board of Selectmen’s liaison to the Energy & Efficiency Committee.

Weiss emphasized he did not participate in evaluating or selecting the bids. Town officials, including First Selectman Thomas Banisch, confirmed the extent of Weiss’ role.

Madison has an Ethics Policy but no ordinance on the matter.

The policy requires that volunteers disclose conflicts of interest in writing to the first selectman.

Banisch indicated Weiss was upfront about the issue: “He came to me and told me right off the bat what his involvement was.”

Weiss has been chairman of the committee for nine or 10 years, he said. Throughout that time, he has been involved with numerous projects that his company had nothing to do with, officials say.

“Woodie was extremely helpful. He’s been a tremendous asset to the town,” Banisch said.

Weiss did help draft the RFP for the solar carport project, a task Goldberg said was not in the committee’s purview but likely occurred because of Weiss’ expertise.

The Ethics Policy says officials should not participate in “the hearing or decision of a board or commission of which he or she is a member when any matter is under consideration in which he or she has a direct or indirect personal or financial interest, over the public interest. An exception would be contracts or transactions that by their terms and by the substance of their provisions confer the opportunity to realize similar benefits to all persons and or property similarly situated.”

After a September meeting at which the carport project was brought before the selectmen, the town’s attorney, Floyd Dugas, said he did not think Weiss’ role in writing the RFP gave Star Power Energy any advantage.

“I have re-read the RFP to see if there is any evidence of Woodie drafting the RFP in a manner that would give him, or any proposer he is affiliated with, an advantage in the process,” Dugas wrote in an email to Banisch. “I did not see anything which on its face suggests that such an advantage was gained. Indeed, it appears to even-handed. While I do not profess to understand the technical aspects of the project, and it is feasible there is some latent advantage, if there is it is not obvious and I did not discern such in my review.”

In 2016, when the financing of earlier projects was on the table, Weiss brought up with Banisch the possibility of a potential conflict of interest in an email sent shortly before his firm was to sign an agreement with the town.

Banisch brought the issue to counsel, emails indicate.

While Dugas said he did not represent Weiss and therefore could not provide him legal advice, he spoke to the town’s liability.

“I can confirm, however, that the Town does not have an ethics ordinance and there are no state ethics laws that would apply, i.e. prohibit the transaction,” Dugas had said.

The response came in a few days after the agreement was signed, records show.

While Weiss acknowledged that he does make some profit off Star Power Energy’s arrangement with the town, he said it takes him years to break even on the investment, adding that putting his money in more conventional invetments would have been more lucrative.

Weiss took money out of such conventional investments because of his commitment to photovoltaics, he said.

Weiss’ purpose was not to make a profit, he said, but “to promote photovoltaics in the most effective way I thought we could.”

Weiss declined to provide documents detailing his finances.

Chris Lenda of Aegis Solar Energy — a company that has done work for Madison in the past but declined to apply for the latest solar carport project — described how a Power Purchase Agreement works.

In the agreement, the financing company agrees to pay for installation of the project as well as maintenance for a set number of years, Lenda said. In return, the town agrees to buy energy from the financer at a fixed rate for a certain time period.

In the case of Madison’s solar projects involving Star Power Energy, this arrangement lasts 20 years, records show.

The financer also earns an Investment Tax Credit worth 30 percent of the project cost, receives Zero Renewable Energy Credits from the utility company — payment for using solar that represents a financial incentive set up by the government — and has the option to take advanced depreciation, Lenda said.

Weiss confirmed this account of the contract but said he discounts the tax credit from the cost to the town and does not take advanced depreciation.

Because he and his business partner do all the work themselves and have no overhead costs, Weiss said, they can offer the town a low price that most commercial companies cannot match.

He saves the town money, he said, and for that reason “[sees] no conflict of interest whatsoever.”

Democrat Selectmen Scott Murphy has said he did not know about Weiss’ involvement with financing solar projects until the carport proposal was brought to the board in September.

Murphy felt frustration with the process that led to the board’s review, claiming he did not remember having a conversation about the town’s energy plan before the RFP went out and generally was excluded from the carport project, which he said he found out about as the liaison to the Board of Education — not from the first selectman.

“If we fix the process, I don’t think we would have ever gotten to that point,” he said regarding concerns about conflict of interest disclosures.

Goldberg also said he had no knowledge of Weiss’ involvement with financing any solar projects until the same time Murphy did.

But though Weiss said he did not share his involvement with the carport project with Goldberg, he said Goldberg was the first official he told of his involvement with the 2016 projects. Goldberg did not recall that discussion, he said.

“To the best of my memory there was no disclosure at that time,” Goldberg said

While Goldberg does not think Weiss, who has “figured out all kinds of ways that the town could save energy,” is at fault, he said he believes it’s the process that failed to properly disclose Weiss’ involvement.

“The process did not yield public disclosure. That to me is the take-away message. ... To me, it was a learning moment for all of us,” Goldberg said.

Weiss is listed as a principal officer in Star Power Energy on the 36th page of the Sunlight Solar proposal. For Goldberg, the extent of that disclosure was inadequate and caused him to hesitate in moving the project forward, he said.

“I would urge a future Board of Selectmen to make the disclosures much more transparent,” he said.

Banisch said Weiss’ involvement has been common knowledge as the town looked into the carport project.

He pointed to Weiss’ work with the town Library Building Committee, where the issue of a conflict of interest also arose. Weiss had lobbied that the project include geothermal heaters for the library, and offered to finance them as a way to push the idea forward in the face of budget concerns, he said.

The potential conflict of interest was discussed at a selectmen’s meeting in April 2018, a recording of which is available online. Goldberg and Murphy both were present at the meeting, according to the minutes.

If they didn’t know about the solar financing before, Banisch said, “they certainly found out then.”

Goldberg recalled the issue but said it did not raise any flags for him concerning other potential conflicts of interest, though in retrospect, he said, it should have.

(In the case of the library, Weiss never ended up financing the heaters but did offer to step down from the committee if need be. When asked why he didn’t do the same for the solar projects, he said the library situation was different and never got so far as to require him to seriously address a possible conflict of interest; with the solar projects, he did address it.)

Banisch said that in retrospect, he wishes he had been more transparent, especially in 2016.

“It was an oversight on my part. It wasn’t complicity,” he said. “The one thing I didn’t do was announce it in a meeting.”

As to keeping the Board of Selectmen in the loop, he said, “They weren’t specifically kept out of it, it just wasn’t normal course of action for them to be involved.”

Weiss said he also has donated to Banisch’s political opponent in this year’s race.

Though Republican Selectman Jean Ferris also said she does not recall being aware of Weiss’ financial involvement with solar projects prior to the September meeting, she did not blame the town government and feels the issue was properly dealt with — Weiss disclosed the conflict, and the town consulted its attorney.

“I really feel like when this first came out, that it was dealt with properly,” she said. “It’s an election season and people are trying to dig things up.”

As Ferris sees it, the Board of Selectmen did not put the carport project on hold out of ethics concerns, but because the town wants more time to decide whether carports are the right choice.

Republican Selectman Bruce Wilson echoed Ferris’ view, listing multiple reasons for delaying the carport project that had nothing to do with ethics, including questions over whether Sunlight Solar had sufficient experience installing carports and whether there was enough financial benefit to the town.

Wilson was unaware of the conflict of interest until a September board meeting, when an opposing bidder pointed it out, he said. But does not think there has been any wrongdoing.

“The disclosures are there. … Certainly, it wasn’t highlighted to the Board of Selectmen, but I can’t say it was hidden, either,” Wilson said. “I don’t think it’s an issue of anything other than normal business.”

It’s normal for bids to come before the board with a recommendation, Wilson said.

The selectman does not think the arrangement conflicts with any of the town’s ethical standards, either.

When asked whether the town needs an Ethics Commission — an issue that came up in the debate between Banisch and his opponent in the coming Nov. 5 election, Peggy Lyons, last Thursday — Wilson said while he is not opposed to the idea, it’s a “campaign issue” that has come up only in the last few weeks.

Banisch said he thought an Ethics Commission was worth discussing but had concerns as to the fairness of the process and worried that it could become a vehicle for slander.

Madison received two proposals for the solar carport project: one from Sunlight Solar, the other from US Green Technologies.

Francis Pullaro, who serves with Weiss on the Energy & Efficiency Committee and heads a renewable energy trade association called RENEW Northeast, raised concerns about that number in a meeting, minutes show.

Given the competitors in the solar energy industry, Pullaro told the Register he was “very surprised that we had only received two bids.”

Pullaro wants to hear what the town did to publicize the RFP, he said.

“I’m just not sure our town is going about it the right way to maximize competition,” he said.

Director of Facilities Bill McMinn described via email how he advertised the RFP.

“We solicited by placing a legal notice in the July 18, 2019 edition of the Source. We also solicited from companies that have shown interest in solar projects and we solicited from companies we believe to have interest in solar projects,” he wrote, adding that he asked Weiss “if he had knowledge of other solar companies.”

(Part of the Zip06 network, The Source is a weekly newspaper that covers Madison, Clinton and Killingworth.)

Weiss confirmed that McMinn asked him to provide names of companies he knew to be interested, adding he specifically put forth US Green Technology’s name because they had presented before the committee.

Wilson said it’s not unusual to receive just two or three responses to RFPs, regardless of the project type.

As the town takes another look at the carport project, Banisch said, McMinn will try hard to get at least three bids.

Of the 2016 proposals, Sunlight Solar’s was “by far” the best bid, Banisch said, adding that he looked at the bids blind.

When McMinn recommended Sunlight Solar’s carport bid to the Board of Selectmen last month, he said its lower price made it the better option, footage of the meeting shows.

In terms of solar projects, Banisch said, he has tried to do what’s best for the town.

Connecticut Media Group