NOTE: The following piece ran, greatly edited for length, in recent editions of the Enterprise. This is the original unedited story.
Is there a conspiracy afoot to push through a Cape Cod Wastewater Authority?
Eric R. Steinhilber, Republican candidate for the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners, suggests there is, and that the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce is, through a special task force, pushing for a regional wastewater management entity with taxation powers.
He also claimed that as part of this goal, the chamber is trying to push through to re-election two incumbent commissioners who are sympathetic to such an entity.
In a press release issued to the media last week, Mr. Steinhilber claimed county commissioners Mary L. (Pat) Flynn of Falmouth and Sheila R. Lyons of Wellfleet — both of whom are running for re-election this November — voted earlier this year to “move forward with a recommendation to create an MWRA- (Metropolitan Water Resources Authority) type Authority for Cape Cod.”
Mr. Steinhilber called the authority “the preferred plan by those who stand to gain from a big pipe solution with a big government agency solution,” he said. “If allowed to enact their plan, these proponents will re-elect Mary Pat Flynn and Sheila Lyons, who will continue the pursuit of a taxing Authority for Cape Cod after their re-election.”
County officials countered that Mr. Steinhilber is trying to manufacture an issue to prop up his campaign, and that the concept of an MWRA-type agency on Cape Cod is dead.
“It’s apparent to me he doesn’t understand the job he’s applying for or the issue,” Ms. Lyons said, calling his press release “a fiction based on snippets of reality.”
“I can only speculate but it appears the issue has more resonance with him as a perceived opportunity to provide visibility for his campaign than other ones like traffic congestion, economic development, housing, planning, and public safety regional dispatch,” Commissioner William Doherty said, “all more immediate and likely to require attention in the short term.”
Mr. Steinhilber said the main champion of wastewater authority idea is Robert A. O’Leary, a former county commissioner and current chairman of the Wastewater Task Force, a new working group created by the chamber of commerce.
In 2002 Mr. O’Leary, then State Senator of the Cape and Islands District, filed a bill to create a regional wastewater management entity. The bill would have made participation by individual towns optional, and Mr. O’Leary identified a portion of the meals and rooms taxes already charged on the Cape, and/or a tax on short-term accommodation rentals, as potential revenue streams.
By 2004 an assessment on homeowners had been added as a funding option. That possibility emerged from work conducted by the Blue Ribbon Committee on Regional Wastewater, a county-appointed working group that included Mr. Doherty.
Mr. Steinhilber quoted a passage in a blue ribbon committee memo regarding how the concept should be sold to residents, stating the outreach campaign should be “run like a political campaign” that identified those in the media friendly to the concept and “neutralized” any hostile media outlets.
That same memo stressed the need to present to the public “a strong defensible financial model to provide adequate funding” and emphasize the proposed entity’s independence “that allows for accountable action, but it is here that we must be careful not to suggest or imply that it can or will become an MWRA, quasi-independent from direct accountability for the management and control of their costs to the voters that established them.”
Amidst considerable public pushback, the committee abandoned the authority model and instead filed a proposal that led to the creation of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative.
Mr. Steinhilber said wastewater authorities then decided to bide their time and wait “for an opportunity to bring their failed proposal back again, and in the meantime, [allow] the wastewater problem to get worse.”
In an interview with the Enterprise, he accused “many of the primary public faces here” of being “more interested in creating a taxing authority than in solving the problems. If they were not, they would not have sat on the sidelines for years doing little to solve the wastewater problem.”
Mr. Steinhilber cited a report from the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) indicating there was “effectively no improvement” in water quality between 2009 and 2010, and said prior to that the county made “minimal efforts to address many of these issues…my conclusion is that they were more interested in the Authority than in solving the water issue.”
He claimed the new impetus to revive the wastewater authority concept was the threat of a lawsuit by the CLF and the Coalition for Buzzards Bay. In late 2010 the two organizations filed a “letter of intent,” the first step toward filing a lawsuit, claiming the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Cape Cod failed to meet their obligations under the federal Clean Water Act to control nitrogen loading in coastal embayments.
The county commissioners and the Cape Cod Commission were also named in that letter.
In 2011 the county commissioners formed the Special Commission on County Governance, a body charged with examining the structure of county government. Mr. O’Leary was a co-chairman on that commission.
One of the commissions’ recommendations was the creation of a taxpayer-funded regional wastewater authority — although the commission later chose to avoid the word “authority” specifically to avoid any comparisons to the MWRA and instead refer to it as a wastewater “district.”
Conspiracy Or Political Ploy?
The special commission finalized its report in February and submitted it to the county commissioners in March. The commissioners formally accepted the report that same month. A review of the video from the March meeting showed that none of the commissioners explicitly endorsed any of the commission’s recommendations — including the wastewater authority proposal.
Mr. Steinhilber’s said the commissioners voted in February to “move forward with a recommendation to create an MWRA-type Authority for Cape Cod.”
“The impetus of the entire vote is advancing a special commission recommendation” to create an MWRA-style body, even though materials in his own press kit indicate the commissioners in fact did not vote to support the proposal.
What the commissioners did was charge Paul J. Niedzwiecki, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, and Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative, with exploring the ramifications of creating a regional wastewater management plan.
“Having a regional plan is very important, and I think all of us, the three [county commissioners] recognize that we must move forward on that,” Ms. Flynn said at that meeting, adding, “to make a decision to move forward, without any public discussion or without any public input on voting to recommend a regional plan that includes a taxing authority, at this time, would not be very wise and I don’t think would show good leadership on our part.”
The commissioners concurred that a regional approach of some kind was desirable, but an authority was not. “It would be ridiculous to have an MWRA here,” Ms. Lyons said. “I do think there was a misunderstanding. People latched onto [the word ‘authority’] and never let it go and never allowed themselves to have a clear understanding of it.”
Ms. Flynn reiterated that position on September 5 during a meeting with Sandwich town officials, telling them the county wanted to be responsive to town needs and supportive of current town-level projects. She said the county’s contribution to the efforts is “certainly not a taxing authority, and certainly not taking over the planning and implementation of wastewater planning on Cape Cod. That’s not our intent and it’s not our job.”
Mr. Steinhilber himself joined the chorus and declared the wastewater authority dead — and in fact claimed direct credit for defeating it. On August 9 he issued a press release with the header: “Steinhilber: 1, MWRA on Cape Cod: 0 — The MWRA solution is ‘off the table.’ Steinhilber declares victory.”
“After months of consideration, it took until July 18th for the Commissioners to officially kill it,” Mr. Steinhilber said in the release, referring to the commissioners’ meeting that day. “The County Commissioners have heard the calls and have abandoned any plans to support an MWRA-type taxing authority.”
However, in the weeks leading up to the September primary election, Mr. Steinhilber revived the issue on his campaign signs, which stated “Eric Says No MWRA For Cape Cod.” He now claims the proposal is alive and well and being publicly championed by the chamber of commerce.
Enter The Chamber
“The chamber of commerce picked it up, quietly and behind the scenes,” Mr. Steinhilber said. “It became abundantly clear that the intent of these folks was to go underground during the county commissioners race, since it had become too charged politically.”
Mt. Steinhilber said his declaration of victory was premature as the chamber acted after he issued the statement. “I would have phrased it differently, but the message is still the same,” he said, “the sitting commissioners and Andy Gottlieb are on record opposing it, which means that proposal is dead for now. There is clearly a comeback being mounted, if you believe that these important and influential people continue to pursue it.”
“Wondering why the Cape Cod Chamber is doing this?” Mr. Steinhilber said in his press release. “Remember that the other party to the lawsuit on this issue is the Buzzards Bay Coalition and their President is on the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.”
Mark Rasmussen, president and CEO of the Coalition for Buzzards Bay since 1998, is not on the chamber of commerce’s board of directors according to the chamber’s official roster. Mr. Steinhilber later said he should have been listed as a member of the task force, not the chamber’s board.
However, Mr. Steinhilber noted that the Coalition for Buzzards Bay’s co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, the Conservation Law Foundation, opposes “big pipe” (region-wide sewering) solutions because “large sewer systems make new construction viable in environmentally sensitive areas.”
“Water and wastewater issues are among the largest restrictors of construction right now,” he continued, explaining that without those restrictions, land that could not at present be developed could become buildable, benefiting owners of such property, real estate developers, and building material suppliers.
Mr. Steinhilber maintained that the chamber task force “is already pre-disposed to the big pipe solution and most (members) are on record supporting the Taxing Authority, too. They will shock no one when they, like the Special Commission, conclude that an MWRA-type taxing Authority is the best answer,” that based on the fact Mr. O’Leary was appointed to lead the task force.
Mr. O’Leary, who was traveling in China, did not offer any comment on Mr. Steinhilber’s claims except, “I don’t hold public office, so why is the candidate running against me?”
A task force memo dated July 13 — provided to the Enterprise by Mr. Steinhilber — discussing its “communications campaign” for “how to proceed with supportive action toward solving our waste water [sic] issues” does not explicitly advocate for the creation of a wastewater authority, a regional management plan, or big-pipe solutions.
“The overarching goal is to present a message that is supportive of a process for developing localized solutions, tailored to specific communities and watersheds, which will minimize financial impact on our residents and business owners,” the memo read. “The coalition would not be specifically supporting big pipe vs. small pipe vs. alternative solutions, but a PROCESS of solution development.”
Another memo cites the need for “positive messaging during the county commissioners’ election,” which Mr. Steinhilber interpreted as evidence that authority proponents are working against his campaign.
“There can be no other conclusion than they believe Eric Steinhilber will oppose them and Flynn and Lyons will support them,” Mr. Steinhilber said in his press kit.
“If you believe that the proponents of a taxing authority continue to want that outcome,” he said, “and they are continuing to work towards that outcome…you must conclude that they believe the current board to be more favorable to reach that goal than a board with me on it.”
Wendy K. Northcross, CEO of the chamber, refuted that claim and said the task force documents “state the obvious — that is, the desire of many to keep the facts straight — especially in light of a political campaign that is using our wastewater infrastructure needs as a plank in its platform.”
“The [chamber] is keenly interested in finding a solution that is effective both in its science and its cost,” she said, and that the county commissioners’ race “is only important in that the dialogue on wastewater (as a campaign plank) be as truthful as possible and not laden with scare tactics and misinformation about the Cape’s need to address wastewater planning and infrastructure.”
“The Chamber’s interest is in communicating to the businesses and residents of Cape Cod the need for action on wastewater,” Ms. Northcross said, “and the desire for the planning process to be driven by local information, transparently transmitted, and fiscally responsible.”
“If it wasn’t so sad, in a way it would be funny,” Ms. Lyons said. “It shows me he has nothing else to offer. It’s disappointing. I’ve spoken to Eric and he’s a nice guy, but I expected something better of him.”
“The truth is that I am anchoring my campaign on the issue most call the single most important issue facing Cape Cod,” Mr. Steinhilber said. “The suggestion that anyone would think the others are anything but secondary is silly.”
“Focusing on sedate issues sounds the way incumbents talk,” he concluded. “The truth is, too many people have punted on important issues like this. I assure you, this issue has cost me fundraising, party support, establishment support and garnered me more grief than just the mocking tones of media, but it is the right thing to do by the people of Cape Cod. They have a right to know what is going on, especially when it will have such a negative impact on their wallets.”