State: South Hadley’s fiber-optic revenues not public records

South Hadley Electric Light Department

South Hadley Electric Light Department FILE PHOTO

John Hine

John Hine FILE PHOTO

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 04-18-2024 2:23 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — The Secretary of the Commonwealth has upheld South Hadley Electric Light Department’s policy of restricting public information on the fiber-optic network Fiberspring after ruling on an appeal of a public records request for Fiberspring revenues.

SHELD’s internet and telecommunication services launched in 2020, and offers internet, phone and cable service to South Hadley, Leverett and Shutesbury. The municipal light board claims the business’s profitability has positively impacted SHELD by supplementing operating costs for the company.

The board has released little information to the public to verify these claims about Fiberspring and since August 2022 has frequently called executive sessions at the beginning of its meetings to discuss its fiber-optic network, citing a law that allows the 41 municipal light boards in the state to withhold information from the public “when necessary for protecting trade secrets, confidential, competitively sensitive or other proprietary information.” The municipal light board unanimously agreed to consider electric and telecommunication financial information, including expenses, revenues and rates, as trade secrets protected under state law.

Specifics on Fiberspring operations are restricted verbally and on paper. When the minutes are released from the executive sessions, all information pertaining to the progress and revenues from the telecommunications side is redacted. SHELD also lists any revenue from Fiberspring under “other” and combines the figure with minor accounts, so that the profitability, success and financial performance is not easy to measure.

“The electric side is non-competitive. You don’t have to worry about somebody coming in and looking at your numbers and looking at your books and competing with you whereas the fiber is not,” municipal light board member Ron Coutu said during the board’s February 2024 meeting.

On Oct. 17, 2023, freelance journalist Walter Hamilton submitted a public records request for the accounts comprising the “other” line on SHELD’s 2022 financial records. According to a letter to the editor written by Hamilton in the Town Reminder, SHELD sent back a list of accounts constituting the $1.85 million from “other” operating revenues, one of which held $1.7 million. The name of the $1.7 million account, which Hamilton assumes is Fiberspring net revenue, was redacted. 

Hamilton appealed the request, but the secretary of state’s office sided with SHELD’s policy when the agency closed a petition and declared the company had met the burden of response, allowing the municipal light board to continue to withhold monetary information about Fiberspring from their public and private competitors, and the residents of the South Hadley.

“Mr. Hamilton’s appeal and his statements in his letter to the editor alleged that SHELD is blocking access to what he believes should be freely shared information,” John Hine, the Municipal Light Board chairperson, read aloud from a statement during a March 28 meeting. “As stated by SHELD’s council, Mr. Hamilton’s use of certain language is misleading to the public, and I assure all of our customers that SHELD and the board are compliant with the law.”

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SHELD employees and the board treat Fiberspring financial records as confidential information to remain competitive with other internet providers. Municipal light plants, like SHELD, have a protected service territory enforced by law that prevents other public and private electric suppliers from operating in the area. This territory only applies to electricity contracts, not telecommunications activities. With Fiberspring financial information in hand, other municipal-owned companies, like Westfield Gas & Electric, or private corporations, like GoNetSpeed, can swoop in and price out SHELD.

“We have individuals who disagree (with our policy), but it’s very hard to compete for business when you’re giving away all your trade secret information,” SHELD General Manager Sean Fitzgerald said.

In accordance with the policy, the board calls executive sessions to discuss any topic related to or involving Fiberspring finances. Executive sessions, a private meeting period during an open meeting, is used by municipal board to discuss sensitive information, such as a lawsuit or contract negotiations. SHELD, however, cites the state law on protecting municipal lighting plants’ trade secrets as legal reasoning for their executive sessions. Minutes from these meetings include redactions, like minutes from February 2023 and August 2023 executive sessions.

As stated in his letter, Hamilton began asking questions of SHELD in early 2023. He filed an Open Meeting Law complaint about the municipal light board’s December 2022 executive session where commissioners discussed a 8.5% pay raise and 25,000 bonus for SHELD’s general manager, entirely funded by fiber-optic revenues. The state attorney general upheld Hamilton’s complaint, saying the minutes did not have enough detail. The board re-released the minutes on Oct. 26, 2023 with more detail. 

In the recent public records appeal decision, Supervisor of Records Manza Arthur outlined SHELD’s response to the appeal, which affirmed that Massachusetts General Law Chapter 164 Section 47D allows municipal light plants to bylaw public record requirements and open meeting laws if the information will impede SHELD from conducting business, specifically negotiating contracts with communities and municipalities.

“SHELD, through council, submitted a response to the petition informing the Secretary of State that the information Mr. Hamilton sought was competitively sensitive and strategic information pertaining to SHELD’s efforts to obtain business contracts with various communities,” Hine read from the statement.

Arthur agreed, declaring the appeal closed. Hamilton declined to comment about the response.

Staff Writer Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.