Westfield: A Lesson In Government
For all the training and resources available to newly elected officials, it seems impossible for the situation playing itself out in Westfield to actually be happening.
At issue is Mayor Mike VandeVelde’s change from EnergyMark to Ambit Energy with no board approval and despite the appearance of a conflict of interest between VandeVelde and Ambit Energy. VandeVelde says Ambit Energy can lower the village’s energy costs. VandeVelde entered into a contract with Ambit Energy with two seasonal village accounts – accounts which are canceled each spring, according to VandeVelde. After six days, VandeVelde then had Vern Luce, village clerk, cancel the accounts.
The problem is there was never a vote of Village Board members or public discussion over making the change. While the board had discussed lowering its energy costs, there was no public discussion and, more importantly, no vote taken to end the contract with EnergyMark. VandeVelde said he thought he had the board’s approval to change contracts based on informal discussions and emails with board members.
VandeVelde’s issues deepen because he had a prior relationship with Ambit Energy, as do his daughter-in-law and an acquaintance. VandeVelde said he doesn’t have a substantial interest in the company any longer and thought he didn’t have to disclose his relationship with the company. Further, VandeVelde also said he wouldn’t have benefitted from the Ambit agreement while his daughter-in-law would have seen a miniscule amount, if any, that would likely have fallen beneath the levels prescribed in state General Municipal Law.
VandeVelde may be right, but it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have disclosed the relationship and asked the village attorney for advice whether or not VandeVelde should have recused himself from the process. Thankfully, no money changed hands. No early termination fees to Energymark were paid and no payment ever made to Ambit Energy. Westfield residents, however, should be wary.
There is no reason for changing any contracts – regardless of cost – without formal board approval. The checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of governments at all levels exist for a reason. Furthermore, it is important to have such discussions in the open light of a public meeting. This time, the contract dealt with small amounts of money with no financial benefit and was cancelled quickly.
Hopefully, there won’t be a next time.