Amid A Police Corruption Scandal, One Of Massachusetts’ Smallest Towns Rebuilds Its Government

How Cape Cod Police are Handling Human Trafficking

Orleans Police Chief Scott MacDonald explains how the police are working alongside the Cape and Islands District Attorney in the counteroffensive against human trafficking.

“I don’t know how widespread it is on the Cape, this is something that we’re learning, and it’s very difficult to identify. In the summer months … when you have a significant increase in our population through tourism … that may attract traffickers to this area”

Scott MacDonald,

Chief of Police, Orleans PD

The local police are sharpening their tools to tackle the grim reality of human trafficking on the Cape. Scott MacDonald, Chief of Police at

Orleans Police Department,

explains how the police are working alongside the Cape and Islands District Attorney, in the counteroffensive against trafficking.

Growing Awareness and Action

In recent months, concerted efforts have been made to tackle this issue head-on. From the

Cape and Islands district attorney

implementing new strategies to local police departments sharpening their detection tools, there’s a united front against this age-old problem. The formation of working groups and collaboration with organizations like

Homeland Security

and advocacy groups signify a proactive approach to combatting trafficking.

Invisible Victims and Evolving Challenges

Despite historical roots dating back to the arrival of white settlers, human trafficking has remained largely invisible, aided by the covert nature of the crime. The advent of social media has further complicated matters, providing traffickers with a convenient platform to prey on potential victims.

Facing the Unknown

While progress is being made, challenges persist. Understanding the true extent of trafficking on Cape Cod remains elusive, compounded by seasonal population fluctuations and the complexities of labor trafficking. As authorities continue to unravel the intricacies of this issue, one thing remains clear: the fight against human trafficking is far from over.

Watch the Video NewsReport

Scroll up to watch the video to find out how tourism is connected to trafficking on the Cape.

Or click



See LCTV News previous coverage on the DA’s new Human Trafficking division and the grant supporting it.

More information about this topic

Call the

Cape Cod hotline



Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 or text: 233733

Click here to visit the website Helping Survivors to learn about available resources

Additional resources for this story

Tackling Human Trafficking On Cape Cod

Last year the District Attorney’s office prosecuted 41 human trafficking cases on Cape Cod. Despite the increase in prosecutions, both sex and forced human labor trafficking often fly under the radar, but a new grant should bring additional resources to help tackle this under-reported crime.

“I learned through this tremendous story shared by a survivor who described how she had a stabil upbringing. Her trafficker … enticed her in such a way that I think those potentials exist in any community…”

Robert Galibois,

District Attorney, Cape and The Islands.

Does trafficking exist on Cape Cod?

A light is being cast on the darkest of corners: Human trafficking on Cape Cod. The Cape and Islands District Attorney’s Office has received a grant of $97,051 earmarked for the efforts in combatting human trafficking on Cape Cod. The money will be allocated to local trafficking advocacy organizations and for training in police departments and the DA’s office. The last three years the DA’s office has prosecuted 58 human trafficking cases, 41 of them last year.

What is trafficking?

The most common types of trafficking in the U.S are the exploitation of persons for commercial sex, and forced labor, a modern type of slavery. Both types exist on the Cape, but with a crime as hidden as trafficking is, it is difficult to know the full extent of it. What is known is that the first digitally recorded court case in Barnstable, handling what would fall under today’s statute for trafficking in Massachusetts, was 20 years ago.

How do prosecutors combat trafficking on Cape Cod?

By spreading awareness, sharpening investigations and reaching victims light can be shone on this covert crime. Many victims don’t realize they have been groomed into trafficking. It can happen to anyone in any community. Leaving such a situation is impossibly hard and dangerous. The DA’s office has installed a local hotline for both texting and calling for any type of trafficking. The hotline can be used by individuals who need help or support, or any member of the public who spots unusual behavior.

Scroll up to watch the video to find out how tourism is connected to trafficking on the Cape. Or click



Call the Cape Cod hotline: 774-822-0632

Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 or text: 233733

Help that Hurts: Easthampton’s Policing of an Autistic Transgender Adult

When Easthampton police followed Rocky Schulsinger back to his home on Aug. 13, 2022, they explained that he had an expired inspection sticker. The police gave Schulsinger a verbal warning and left, according to a police report on the incident. Then, days later, police informed him that his license was suspended because he had been deemed “an immediate threat.”

“How a small town destroyed autistic transgender adult life,” was how Schulsinger first described the incident to The Shoestring.

What followed next for Schulsinger — and for The Shoestring as we went about investigating his interactions with law enforcement — was a Kafkaesque journey through police and government bureaucracy. 

The Aug. 13 incident wasn’t Schulsinger’s first interaction with Easthampton police; records provided by Schulsinger to The Shoestring date back to April 2021, when an embedded clinician in the Framingham Police Department called Easthampton officers to tell them about Schulsinger’s mental health.

Over the next year and a half, Easthampton police interacted with Schulsinger at least 65 times, in incidents Schulsinger described as frequent, targeted, and abusive. He said he faced targeted discrimination due to disability-related behaviors connected to a clinically diagnosed autism spectrum disorder, resulting in the suspension of his driver’s license and causing him significant harm.   

In a complaint Schulsinger filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination — or MCAD — he recounted a series of documented interactions with Easthampton city officials and employees, alleging that those interactions were later used against him.

“My disability related behaviors was a pretext to publicly discriminate against me and as a pretext to frivolous and false charges against me,” he wrote in the complaint. 

According to mental-health advocates and activists calling for non-police responses to public safety, the situation Rocky faced is far from unique.

The police murder of George Floyd in 2020 renewed national calls for police reform and better crisis response to reduce aggressive and sometimes fatal interactions with police. Municipalities locally and nationally have begun to adopt various crisis-response models in answer to this mounting public pressure. A model that cities in the Connecticut River Valley are widely adopting involves a licensed clinical social worker from a nonprofit organization like Clinical Support Options, or CSO, being “embedded” in the municipal police department. 

Activists and mental health advocates, however, have repeatedly questioned how this model would prevent negative outcomes for people experiencing a crisis, like involuntary confinement or legal consequences. 

“I think in some ways it represents a denial of the fact that when we talk about policing, we think of police, but actually social workers have been trained to police people, as well,” said Sera Davidow, the director of the Wildflower Alliance, a western Mass-based peer support and harm reduction group. “And so it’s often not bringing in a truly different way of interacting with people. It often can look quite similar.”

Davidow also serves on the Massachusetts Disability Law Center Board of Directors and its Council Against Institutional and Psychiatric Abuse, as well as on the advisory board of the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health. In a 2022 article about proposed involuntary outpatient commitment legislation in Massachusetts, she highlighted how most trauma boils down to a loss of power and control. 

“Losses of power and control compound one another,” Davidow wrote. “The more experiences someone has of that type of loss, the more likely they are to struggle moving forward.” 

She also noted multiple studies have shown that people subjected to “even the perception of coercion at the point of admission to a hospital can lead to elevated suicide risk upon release.” 

“Help that hurts isn’t help at all, and certainly shouldn’t be forced on someone,” Davidow wrote.


For Schulsinger, his experiences with the co-responder model resulted in what he described as bullying and harassment, detailing a repeated loss of control over his autonomy.

The interactions that Schulsinger included in his MCAD complaint involve members of the Easthampton Police Department, a social worker employed by the city, executive assistant to the mayor Lindsi Mailler, and CSO co-response clinician Emma Reilly, who was embedded with the EPD. Reilly has since been hired as a full-time city employee as the EPD’s “mental health and wellness coordinator” — a position that is funded through Department of Justice grants for a two-year period, according to a city press release. The city says Reilly now “provides for the mental health and wellness needs of police officers, fire fighters, teachers, and any other city employee in need of those services.”

During the August 2022 traffic stop, police gave Schulsinger a “verbal warning for the inspection sticker and allowed [him] to leave,” according to police officer Andrew Beaulieu’s written narrative. However, Schulsinger said he was later informed his license was suspended. 

Schulsinger provided his MCAD complaint to The Shoestring, along with police reports and dispatch logs the EPD provided him via public records request. 

(Those records the EPD gave him also contained personal identifying information for six other people, including their drivers license numbers, dates of birth, and physical addresses.) 

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle and Police Chief Robert Alberti did not respond to requests for comment on this article.

In the documents the city and the EPD provided to both MCAD and Schulsinger, the police report pertaining to the traffic stop for the expired sticker and Beaulieu’s subsequent narrative are included. The police report is dated Aug. 14, 2022, but the accompanying narrative does not include a date of creation. The top of the police report includes a “caution” that says “subject has autism and is not police friendly.” This caution appears at the top of many included police reports.

Beaulieu’s narrative says he began following Schulsinger upon seeing the expired sticker. He ran Schulsinger’s plates while following behind to identify the driver and said he was “familiar” with Schulsinger “as having significant mental health issues, including Autism.” He said the car made “slight jolts to the left and right” while he was following. 

Beaulieu wrote that after issuing a verbal warning for the expired inspection sticker and returning to the police station, he was made aware of “several other incidents with Mr. Schulsinger being a danger behind the wheel” and was “advised that EPD Clinician Emma Reilly was familiar with these incidents.” 

He then wrote that it was not until Aug. 17 that he spoke to Reilly regarding Schulsinger. He listed three prior “incidents,” the details of which Schulsinger disputed in the MCAD complaint. Records the city provided to MCAD indicate that none of the mentioned prior incidents led to any citations or written warnings.

Beaulieu concluded the narrative saying that Schulsinger had been having “melt-downs” since the beginning of July “during which he refuses to engage with police/clinicians.” He said it was due to this “history over the last few months, both on the road and off” in addition to the traffic stop involving the expired sticker, that he felt “Mr. Schulsinger is a danger on the road, due to his current mental state and the fact that he admitted that he focuses on his GPS while driving, and not the road around him.” Beaulieu then requested an “immediate threat” be issued against Schulsinger’s license.

A request form for license suspension/revocation Beaulieu issued to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles is dated Aug. 19, six days after he had last interacted with Schulsinger.

The MCAD complaint includes details of interactions Schulsinger had with the EPD’s embedded CSO clinician and various members of the EPD prior to his encounter with Beaulieu. Some of these interactions appear to be the ones Beaulieu referred to in his narrative. However, EPD dispatch records Schulsinger provided to The Shoestring include interactions dating back to April 2021 and have further details into the scope of the encounters between Schulsinger and the city. 

In the first logged interaction between the EPD and Schulsinger in April 2021, involving officer Robert Puska, the narrative details the EPD pursuing Schulsinger’s physical location after a clinician embedded with the Framingham Police Department notified EPD dispatch. The clinician requested that the EPD conduct a “section 12” action. In Massachusetts, this is also known as an “application for an authorization of temporary involuntary hospitalization.”

The basis for this request is from statements made a day prior in a mental health support group, according to the EPD dispatch narrative. Dispatch wrote that Schulsinger did not want police assistance, and that “no threats [were] made towards PD,” but continued attempting to locate him by tracking his mobile phone. The log misgendered Schulsinger as “trans-female but presents himself as a male.” 

An hour after dispatch took the call, EPD officers began attempting to make entry to Schulsinger’s apartment and continued to track his mobile phone through his cell phone provider, T-Mobile, records show. Nearly an hour later, Puska located Schulsinger driving in Easthampton and pulled him over.

There are 65 interactions with the EPD logged between April 2021 and September 2022 in records provided to Schulsinger. A majority of these interactions are documented as some form of well-being check — many initiated by a third-party clinician — requests for police services by Schulsinger himself, or triggered by reported behavior categorized as “emotionally deranged person” or “suspicious person” in EPD records. 

Situations that fell into these latter categories included confused or disoriented behavior in public spaces, difficulty with a vehicle that did not involve erratic driving, and walking around without a shirt. Most of the logged interactions appear resolved by direct communication with Shulsinger, often provided by third-party, non-embedded clinicians. None report physical threats from Schulsinger to EPD, EMS, or third parties. Some reports specifically say that clinicians did not feel unsafe. 

Despite the use of an embedded co-responder since September 2021, the EPD made repeated attempts to involuntarily commit Schulsinger to medical facilities via section 12 order, records show.

It appears that in none of these instances was the embedded CSO clinician physically present, according to dispatch records. The EPD requested a section 12 order on two separate occasions from off-site clinicians. In both of these incidents, Schulsinger was cleared by third-party clinicians who eventually were able to evaluate him and did not involuntarily commit him to hospital stays or inpatient services. 

In one interaction on June 5, 2022, records show that Connecticut State Police evaluated Schulsinger at the request of EPD officers who had tracked his mobile phone for eight hours. The Connecticut State Police Mobile Crisis Unit cleared Schulsinger upon evaluation and let him drive away on his own accord. 

In another interaction a month later, EPD officers attempted to forcibly enter Schulsinger’s apartment in the middle of the night by removing an AC window unit on the first floor, according to police records. Officer narratives indicate a convenience store clerk informed the officers of an interaction they had two hours earlier in the evening with Schulsinger that had them worried about his mental state. As a result, the EPD requested a section 12 from an off-site CSO clinician while simultaneously attempting to enter his apartment. Another clinician at CSO familiar with Schulsinger opted to arrive at his residence after hearing about the request. The clinician arrived and called CSO, asking for the section 12 to be removed — a request that was granted. According to police narratives, the clinician felt comfortable that Schulsinger was fine to remain in his residence. 

In addition to the suspension of Schulsinger’s driver’s license, the EPD also issued two “no-trespass orders” that barred him from entering City Hall or the Public Safety Complex in October, 2022. Schulsinger believes this was retaliatory and related to his many attempts to file a complaint with the department about the conduct of Beaulieu. The EPD’s police log shows Shulsinger attempted to make a complaint — and to receive a copy of it — in numerous ways after receiving differing verbal instructions from officers on Aug. 28, 29, 30, 31 and Sept. 11, 12, and 13. 

In an email on Sept. 27 to Karen Serra — a family and autism support director with the social-services organization Pathlight  — Police Chief Robert Alberti said, “I am not entering his frivolous complaints.” He also said Schulsinger’s needs are “beyond the scope of our abilities” and “if he persists, he will be criminally charged or arrested.” 

“We DO NOT want to have to do this, we know he needs help…help we CAN NOT provide,” Alberti wrote. “From this point forward, he will only be referred to the state and your office for assistance.”

Another city employee who is not affiliated with the police department or the mayor’s office was able to successfully obtain a harassment prevention order against Schulsinger in October 2022. The order was granted by a Northampton District Court judge.  

Schulsinger said he made a concerted effort to seek help from other city officials and employees including Mayor LaChapelle and her assistant. Schulsinger said he was instead met with further roadblocks. 

“When I tried to seek help from the Easthampton Township, I was instead targeted, bullied, harassed, and faced almost daily emotional abuse and manipulation,” Schulsinger said in court filings.  

When the EPD attempted to serve notice of the harassment prevention order to Schulsinger, he made a call to 911, according to the city’s response to his MCAD complaint. Schulsinger said he believed someone was trying to gain access to his apartment. The EPD then filed criminal charges against Schulsinger saying he made a false 911 call “willfully” and “maliciously.” 

Easthampton’s response to the MCAD complaint is lengthy — 27 pages of text plus exhibits. An MCAD complaint that decided in favor of the complainant, finding probable cause of the respondent’s violation of Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws, can move forward into resolution efforts including public hearings and remedy orders. In some cases this includes damages for emotional distress and attorneys’ fees. 

The city opens their response — which asks MCAD to find a “lack of probable cause” — by stating that the city is committed to understanding autism as it relates to public safety. The response notes that 14 out of the city’s 35 police officers had “received 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Team training from Behavioral Health Network, which included a two-hour block on working with individuals with autism.” They also note that the police academy now includes four hours of training for working with people with autism so all new recruits will have this training. 

The very first exhibit provided as evidence of the city’s “commitment to provide autism awareness and inclusion” is a blue police badge belonging to Alberti with a colorful puzzle piece in the center.

The puzzle piece symbol has been a controversial representation of autism, with many people reporting negative association with the symbolism since its 1963 origin. In a 2011 article in the peer-reviewed journal College English, University of Michigan Professor M. Remi Yergeau, who has autism, wrote about the puzzle piece symbolism as “representing autistic people as puzzling, mysterious, less-than-human entities who are ‘short a few cognitive pieces,’ who are utterly self-contained, disconnected, and [who] need to ‘fit in.’”

The city provided emails to MCAD that show discussions about, and with, Schulsinger, as well as a request from Serra to city officials to schedule a meeting. This meeting appears to have taken place on Oct. 5, 2022, and included a staff member from the state Department of Developmental Services. However, Schulsinger did not attend this meeting, where it was ultimately decided to serve him the no trespass orders. The city also told MCAD that Schulsinger previously refused to meet with LaChapelle “claiming that she was racist” and that Mailler responded to “numerous emails” from Schulsinger.

The city’s lawyer also claimed “legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for issuing the no trespass orders and issuing the criminal charge” to Schulsinger. 

“Even if [the city] was found to have technically violated the law, its actions were taken for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons,” the city’s lawyer wrote.


The Shoestring found it difficult to independently evaluate the effectiveness of the CSO embedded co-responder model in Easthampton. The EPD, for example, has claimed a range of public records exemptions to withhold from The Shoestring records related to interactions with Schulsinger on the basis that they contain personal and medical information. The EPD also asked for “estimated fees” for separating and redacting records, including one estimate of $375. 

“Lack of transparency is huge in all these systems,” Davidow, the Wildflower Alliance director, told The Shoestring. 

Davidow said she has been part of conversations about transparency, information sharing, what kind of information agencies store and for how long, and who exactly has access to that information. Davidow said these systems are given too much leeway as they develop and are often “up and running” before officials figure out suitable guiding policies to put in place.

“Sometimes that means they remain unfigured out for years,” she said.

With information policy actively taking shape around embedded co-responder programs, this means that many police departments now have access to medical information about the people they interact with that they typically wouldn’t have had in the past. Davidow questioned what value this information ultimately has in these types of crisis-response systems and what kind of influence it yields on responders. 

“Does it make them more compassionate or does it make them see that person as more dangerous?” Davidow asked. She believes this question has not really been answered. 

While information sharing between agencies may be a hallmark of co-responder models, that transparency has so far not been public facing. In attempting to attain records for this article, The Shoestring met several hurdles and received some concerning statements from city officials.

In one instance the EPD responded that the department does not “maintain” dispatch recording transcripts nor posses “the technological capability to redact portions of the audio recordings which involve personal or medical information” — this despite the department’s purchase of a $270,000 “state-of-the-art public safety suite” that was slated to go live in June 2023, per previous reporting. The Shoestring asked both Alberti and LaChapelle for comment on the status of the software suite, and if IT Department Director Karin Camihort had been asked to assist in redacting the recording. Neither responded. “In one instance the EPD responded that the department does not “maintain” dispatch recording transcripts nor posses “the technological capability to redact portions of the audio recordings which involve personal or medical information — this despite the department’s purchase of a $270,000 “state-of-the-art public safety suite” that was slated to go live in June 2023, per previous reporting. The Shoestring asked both Alberti and LaChapelle for comment on the status of the software suite, and if IT Department Director Karin Camihort had been asked to assist in redacting the recording. Neither responded. 

The Easthampton Fire Department, which has also been party to some of these interactions, provided essentially blank incident reports to The Shoestring that just say “wellbeing check.” When questioned further on the incident on July 8, 2022 involving the removal of the AC unit at which two EFD paramedics were present for almost two hours, EFD Chief Christopher Norris said “the narrative on the attached fire report provided indicates it was a well-being check.”  

Norris said. “We had no patient contact as it was a police matter in conjunction with CSO personnel.” 

This seemingly contradicts police narratives that the city provided to MCAD and Schulsinger that say paramedics were actively involved. In one narrative, EPD officer Matthew Rood recalled: “With help from the paramedics on scene, I was able to move a portion of the air conditioner located in Schulsinger’s window.” 

“The air conditioner was then removed from Schulsinger’s window, and I entered the apartment,” he continued. “I unlocked the door and let the paramedics inside.” 

The EPD initially refused to provide policy documents regarding procedures related to authorizing or requesting section 12 orders, as well as CSO embedded-clinician contracts. In response to one such request, the department responded via an attorney saying they would need a significant estimated fee because the records would “require careful review prior to dissemination to ensure that investigative efforts are not compromised. As such, these records cannot be provided without redaction or segregation.” 

It took six weeks and an appeal to the state records supervisor for the city to provide a weblink to the policy documents. Those policies are called EPD 1.16 “handling the mentally ill”  and EPD 1.18 “co-response,” which was revised on Jan. 10, 2024. The original version of the “co-response” policy The Shoestring requested, and under which the department was operating during their interactions with Schulsinger, is no longer visible. In an email to Alberti on Jan. 29, 2024, The Shoestring again requested the original version of the policy.

The Shoestring was able to obtain these same requested policy documents from the Hadley Police Department in less than 10 business days. The HPD also uses the same CSO co-responder program. 

The Shoestring was also able to obtain the co-response policy and a two-page document referencing section 12 procedures from the Easthampton Fire Department within 10 business days and without state-level involvement. The two-page document EFD provided is part of a 175-page statewide policy. In this statewide medical treatment protocol, one section lists “acute risk factors for violence.” The first item listed is “male gender.” 

The only reason The Shoestring was able to review the true scope of EPD and EFD crisis response with Schulsinger was because Schulsinger himself requested the documents in which he is named and provided them to The Shoestring. 

What is apparent from the records provided, however, is the inconsistency of record keeping and records classifications. The interactions related to Schulsinger that involved some form of crisis response were not consistently categorized with such designation. Instead, the incidents were logged with various titles including but not limited to “assist person,” “wellbeing check,” “fire/ems ambulance,” “unwanted person,” “follow up investigation,” “CSO follow up,” “assist other police department,” and “emotionally deranged person.” 

This type of inconsistent categorization of records would seemingly make it very difficult for the EPD itself to track and evaluate these incidents, let alone others. Even within the dispatch log there is no clear consistency aside from police and dispatch ID numbers and time stamps. 

When The Shoestring attempted to get overview data from CSO about the co-responder program, we were met with a few short, rushed statements and empty promises. 

In a phone call, CSO spokesperson Geoffery Oldmixon explained that the CSO embedded employees within police departments are clinicians. He said that the program has “diverted about 50% of crisis from emergency departments” and said CSO had outcome data by town. The Shoestring asked for documentation of this data as well as program contracts and procedures. Oldmixon did not provide that data and did not set up an interview despite saying he would. 

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The Shoestring made multiple requests to LaChapelle and Alberti for comment on the allegations made in the MCAD complaint, to explain the goals of the CSO and EPD partnership, and whether or not those goals had been achieved. They did not respond.

“Another sort of wrinkle in all of this is, how are we measuring information shared and how are they even collecting information to measure outcomes?” Davidow said. “One of the things that often gets missed in that conversation is who decides what’s a good outcome?”

Davidow pointed out that these models of crisis response emerged from a national push to remove police from crisis response. However, many of these models have actually increased police presence in crisis situations.

“For folks in this community that I’m a part of where people have psychiatric histories, the lack of trust influences a lot of willingness to reach out for help or not,” she said. “And if everybody’s sort of goal is to put someone in a hospital or something like that, then that’s doing harm.” 


Schulsinger says his time living in Easthampton left a lasting imprint on his life. 

“This is the story of a town that targeted and destroyed an autistic, transgender man, with no support from any family or friends in the state of Massachusetts,” he said.

Shulsinger said he moved to Easthampton to accept a job he was passionate about. He was living independently and working as a board certified behavior analyst. He said he had recently received a raise and was making a name for himself in his chosen career field helping children with autism learn skills to advocate for themselves. Shulsinger said this all changed after he was pulled over for his expired inspection sticker, and he was scared and uncertain about how he could maintain his career with a suspended license and no friends or family support in the state.

“I did not hurt anyone or threaten anyone or try to harm anyone,” Schulsinger said. “I was just upset and crying and yelling and rocking. I told them to stop talking to me but my self advocating for my needs to prevent further escalation was ignored.”

Shulsinger said he became emotionally dysregulated from overstimulation and sensory overload during his interactions with the Easthampton’s first responders. 

“Instead of the calm and escape from noise and people, they did the opposite and surrounded me with more officers and the fire department — a whole circle of people crowding me and speaking to me all at once,” he wrote.

Shulsinger said the interactions with ambulances, lights, and sirens was a “sensory nightmare” for him. 

“It just kept getting worse and worse and for someone like me that is sensitive to noises and lights and crowds it is painful and it felt like knives being stabbed in my ears and head,” he added.

Schulsinger said advocating for himself the best way he knew how only made matters worse. He said his attendance at a local bereavement group and outreach to city officials via emails resulted in a harassment prevention order and two no-trespass orders. With a suspended license and experiencing autism burnout, Schulsinger said he found himself unable to work and without prospects of affording an attorney to represent him in the face of his newfound legal hurdles. 

Shulsinger said these legal challenges ruined his reputation in the community and put his professional license at risk. He submitted the MCAD complaint to try to get some resolution if not for himself, maybe for others’ benefit in the future. Schulsinger said he found it demeaning and condescending to see the city respond to the MCAD with the puzzle-piece police badge as evidence of non-biased policing of autistic individuals.

“Just because someone has a symbol on their badge does not give them the right to discriminate against them and then call yourself an ally,” he said.

Schulsinger moved to Easthampton during the height of pandemic precautions when many businesses and services were still shut down. He said the few autism resources he was able to get were not enough, and when he failed to respond to his support providers, they would call the police to do wellness checks. Schulsinger said these checks were typically conducted in the same manner they would be done for elderly clients: an officer or clinician would come and see that he was okay and leave — but eventually, they began escalating.

“They would not do wellness checks, they would just break into my apartment, physically grab me and drag me out of my tent, my safe place, and bring me to the hospital where I would be released a few hours later,” Schulsinger said. “It was completely traumatizing.” 

Schulsinger said he doesn’t want the city and its police to think they can intimidate him or silence him “so they continue doing this to others with disabilities.”

“No one should have to experience what I went through,” he said. “I know there are other people with disabilities in the community that have similar stories but many are afraid to speak up due to the power the town has to retaliate against them and destroy their life.”

Shelby Lee is a short story writer and investigative reporter. They can be reached at

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Urban agriculture isn’t as climate-friendly as it seems – but these best practices can transform gardens and city farms

The Forest and the Trees: Western Mass’ Solar Siting Problem

This story was produced with support from the Markham Nathan Fund for Social Justice.

By Naila Moreira

SHUTESBURY — At the base of an oak trunk too large to wrap my arms around, a russula mushroom’s scarlet cap sprouts like a fairy umbrella, perched above clubmoss on a milk-white stem.

Nearby, mountain laurels — slow growers at just a foot a year — arch over the footpath. Rivulets hurry downslope to coalesce and join larger Adam’s Brook below. Eventually, they’ll end up in the Atkins Reservoir.

As I hike this dripping green landscape in Shutesbury, Massachusetts, on a September afternoon, a torrential rain has only just stopped. As I drove here, signs punctuated the tree-lined roadside beside mailboxes: “Solar and Forests: We Need Both. No Clear Cutting Forestlands.”

The downpour, and the cataclysmic wetness of the preceding summer, feels appropriate to my purpose. I’m here because up to 360 acres of this forest are proposed to be clear-cut for five separate solar panel arrays totaling 45 megawatts of energy capacity. The land is owned by W.D. Cowls Land Company, Inc., the largest private landowner in Massachusetts. The sites, meanwhile, would be leased by PureSky Energy, a solar company co-owned by the multinational asset management firms Fiera Capital Corporation and Palisade Infrastructure Group.

The solar project could become the state’s largest. In return, Cowls has agreed to place 5,000 acres of nearby land within Shutesbury, Leverett and Pelham under conservation restriction. Although that land can’t be developed, Cowls is allowed to log those acres.

The solar installations would help, Cowls’ president Cinda Jones has said, in the fight against climate change, which experts say is fueling weather like this year’s excessive rain and flooding in New England.

Yet reflecting activism across Massachusetts, rural residents in Shutesbury have resisted solar development on the town’s forestlands, including through a new bylaw restricting land clearing for solar. In return, PureSky Energy filed a lawsuit against Shutesbury, and recently, the state attorney general’s office struck down the bylaw. Cowls was a plaintiff in the suit.

As Massachusetts tries to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — necessitating seven to 10 times its current solar capacity — contentious cases like Shutesbury illuminate a complex interplay of federal and state policy, grid infrastructure, and economics. Such factors can lead to seemingly counterintuitive proposals that threaten to pit activist against activist, like cutting down forestland to reduce the state’s carbon emissions.

At the same time, the state aims to protect 40% of Massachusetts forests by 2050 in recognition of forests’ ecosystem services, including but not limited to carbon sequestration. Currently, just 27% of the state’s forests are conserved.

Broad agreement exists that a balance needs to be found to minimize such conflicts and still allow for rapid green infrastructure development. But finding that balance is tricky. It will require wading through sticky questions about how we value our green space, and for what; what incentives or infrastructure will actually tip the economic scales in favor of developing solar on already built or disturbed land; and how best to work with profit-seeking corporations who, for the time being, are the parties best financially positioned to green the state’s energy grid.

This winter, a new state commission tasked with recommending reforms to hasten green energy development will encounter these questions head on. Created by executive order by Gov. Maura Healey and seated in October, the Commission on Clean Energy Infrastructure Siting and Permitting will “build consensus” (or “build serious consensus,” if you ask Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll) “on how to tackle this challenge in a way that ensures environmental justice communities don’t bear a disproportionate burden, greenspace and other development priorities are protected, and we can all share in the benefits of clean energy.”

The commission is slated to issue recommendations on March 31. But to understand exactly where this committee might steer Massachusetts’s green energy future, it’s important to understand how we got where we are now.

Solar as forest threat

To Shutesbury resident Sharon Weizenbaum, the proposed solar installations and the attorney general’s recent decision are an affront to the town’s right to govern itself, a threat to the ecosystem, and a hazard to her property. She helps run Smart Solar Shutesbury, a seven-member activist group that helped create the town’s solar bylaw as well as the signs I spotted along the road.

A creek alongside Weizenbaum’s land is located below one proposed site. It could suffer development-related erosion, runoff, and flooding, she says, especially as climate change worsens.

The concept is only barely theoretical. In nearby Williamsburg, an 18.5-acre solar array owned by Dynamic Energy Solutions, LLC, illegally released stormwater “in extreme amounts,” according to a 2020 complaint by the state attorney general’s office. The sediment-laden water damaged about 100,000 square feet of surrounding wetlands, rivers, and forest, with the company paying $1.14 million to settle the case.

“I have horses here, and I ride every day, and I forage mushrooms in this forest,” Weizenbaum says. “What the forest has done for me, I feel I owe it to the forest — I’ll do everything I can to protect you.”

For Shutesbury, the attorney general’s decision to overturn the town’s solar bylaw focused largely on technical errors regarding appropriate public notification. However, the suit also cited the Dover Amendment, a state law that prevents “unreasonable” restrictions on solar development except in the case of threats to public health and safety. The move reflects similar decisions in neighboring Wendell and Pelham that invalidated local attempts to restrict solar development, including through limits on the construction of battery storage.

Some have suggested that such local resistance comes from a “not in my backyard” knee-jerk antipathy to necessary communal change. Further, some point out that activism against large-scale rural solar may be coming largely from those with the economic and cultural capital to fight back.

Caitlin Peale Sloan, Massachusetts vice president for the Conservation Law Foundation, identifies the “dynamics of people who don’t want something to get built in their backyard because it would be different from what’s already there,” which, she says, “blends with the ability of communities to have a say in what’s happening in their community.”

Sloan will sit on the state siting committee, where she plans to bring a focus on environmental justice and equity. Some communities, she notes, have more pervasive financial and historical barriers to resisting infrastructure construction, and may need more active state protection. “It blends with historic dynamics of which kind of communities usually play host to industrial development, and which get to avoid that,” she notes.

“There can be a fine line between, ‘I’m opposing this because I don’t want it in my backyard,’ and, ‘I’m opposing this because of deeply held beliefs that have nothing to do with my backyard,’” acknowledges Sloan. However, she said, “the good faith way to characterize the opposition I’ve seen to solar projects in rural areas is concerns about preserving that particular area of forest. There are many values that go beyond the cost of losing a tree or 10 acres of trees. The health of a forest is interconnected through the roots, it’s not  just every tree for itself. It’s a state policy question, how we balance those interests and those values.”

Weizenbaum suggests that Shutesbury itself serves as an example of a smaller, less-resourced rural town being pushed around by wealthy for-profit entities.

“People try to accuse us of being NIMBY, but I really think that most of the work against huge industry is done by local people, it’s done by people who love the landscape,” she says. “Each community is fighting in isolation, but we’re connected by fighting for the environment.”

Since about 2010, solar has represented a growing threat to forestlands, according to the state’s 2020 Forest Action Plan. Statewide, the development of forested land has represented the largest threat to forests, with 13.5 acres being lost per day from 2012 to 2017. About a quarter of that loss has been due to solar development alone.

Sixty percent of the state’s 500 new ground-mounted solar arrays since 2010 have been built on previously forested land, according to the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s new Growing Solar, Protecting Nature report. And about 10 percent of all deforestation in Massachusetts has been due to solar development, state Energy and Environmental Affairs Undersecretary Katherine Antos said during a solar forum at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in September.

Given these statistics, a chorus of expert voices from conservationists to legislators and even climate activists are also saying that Massachusetts forests are not the best place for solar.

Stephen Long of The Nature Conservancy, an organization that supports both forest conservation and solar development, agrees that the state should stop converting forestland to solar. “There are buildings, there are parking lots, there are already disturbed lands, for efficient placement of solar. Definitively,” he said. Long is also serving on the state commission.

Long points to the MassAudubon report, which shows that 30 gigawatts of solar could fit on the state’s rooftops and parking lots with another 25 gigawatts on sites with low impact to nature and farms. State analyses have shown similar results, challenging prior claims that the built environment can’t accommodate enough solar to meet the state’s needs.

The state’s green spaces — including forests, wetlands, farmland, and park land — store more than 0.6 gigatons of carbon, or the last 25 years of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the state’s Clean Energy and Climate Plan. Each year, such lands also absorb 10% of the state’s new emissions, with forests alone responsible for 80% of that total.

Solar companies have been quick to point out that in terms of carbon, solar arrays provide better results than forests. “An acre of solar offsets about eight times more carbon per year than forest,” said Rayo Bhumgara of New York-based Syncarpha Community Solar, which operates ground-mounted solar arrays in Belchertown.

A calculator developed by Harvard Forest shows that after about eight years, solar panels “pay back” the carbon stored in the forest, then providing some 20 years of net emissions reduction.

However, forests provide far more than carbon sequestration, conservationists point out. Especially in their healthiest, unfragmented state, they provide ecosystem services from biodiversity to drinking water filtration to soil stability to clean air, as well as natural beauty.

“Some people are looking at a ledger of carbon. We’re encouraging people to look at a broader view,” Long says. “Forests aren’t just carbon. Forests have many, many more values than just carbon.”

This summer, in part to aid in protecting sensitive lands, a state analysis mapped out Massachusetts’ best sites for solar. The Technical Potential of Solar report, produced by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. for the state’s Department of Energy Resources, relies in part on the state’s Biomap tool.

Biomap identifies sites of higher and lower ecological value. The tool classifies most of Shutesbury’s forest as either Core Habitat or Critical Natural Landscape, the two classifications of greatest ecological importance.

Despite the forest’s high value, however, the Technical Potential of Solar interactive map labels most of Shutesbury “mixed” in suitability for solar development. It gives the region a “C” grade for suitability in the categories of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. However, it’s marked grade “A” in categories like proximity to electric infrastructure, slope, agricultural potential, and “ecosystem services,” a category including drinking water protection.

The map’s conflation of values — some directly opposed to one another, like forest biodiversity versus agricultural potential — can confuse the issue.

“The state needs to dig more into the findings,” said the Conservation Law Foundation’s Sloan. “They apply a framework that we’ve been asking them to apply for many years, which is to assess parcels of land by their suitability, and then to be able to say statewide: Which parcels are the most suitable for solar development? Which parcels should be preserved for their ecosystem value or their high quality agricultural soil value?”

Weizenbaum says her experience “has woken me up to this assault on communities by this green-energy movement, and this contradiction between giving all this money to green energy and the downside of that on a community level.”

She says she, and possibly other members of Smart Solar Shutesbury, will stay active in the state’s solar discussion even once the Shutesbury situation is settled. The group’s website provides resources about resistance to solar development elsewhere in the state, and concatenates information about state regulatory proposals for solar siting.

Right now, though, their plans are local. They next aim to fix the technicalities on which Shutesbury’s solar bylaw was overturned. Without changes to the Dover Amendment, however, blocking the installations may remain elusive.

Why forests, anyway?

Siting solar on green lands like forests isn’t just about the availability of space.

Near one of the proposed Shutesbury solar sites, power poles punctuate a forest cut. Electrical lines vanish over the hills into the distance, carrying power to consumers far beyond view.

Alongside the poles hulks one big reason for the location of the proposed solar arrays: National Grid Substation #704, an agglomeration of concrete slabs, gleaming wiring, and electrical equipment.

Solar energy is intermittent, sometimes producing power in big surges and sometimes in trickles depending on time of day or cloud cover. It can therefore blow out existing infrastructure designed for the regular, even flow of fossil-fuel electricity.

Utilities like National Grid are required to install upgrades to accommodate any solar project. However, it’s up to the solar installer to pay for the upgrade, putting a burden on smaller-scale installers like municipalities or homeowners.

“We’re making it really, really hard for smaller solar,” says state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa. The Northampton Democrat has proposed a bill that would provide additional subsidies for solar on canopies, rooftops, and disturbed lands. “We are incentivizing the large-scale solar, which is, you know, part of the equation, but we’re making it really difficult for people to put solar on their houses. The regulations are extraordinarily onerous.”

Big corporations can more easily pay for new transformers and utility improvements. However, it’s cheaper if they build near existing large-scale infrastructure.

Such companies are often straightforward about the importance of making money. The language of the Shutesbury lawsuit, for instance, makes it clear that profit is a primary driver.

“Ground-mounted solar systems are under extreme cost pressures and must reach a certain economy of scale in order to be profitable,” the lawsuit reads. “Primarily this is due to very high interconnection costs for these projects, which typically remain constant regardless of system size. A proposed solar project needs to be large enough to spread these costs out or the project will be uneconomic.”

Why can’t for-profit solar companies bundle multiple smaller, urban projects to take advantage of economies of scale, by building arrays on multiple parking lots or rooftops?

“It’s far cheaper to install on undeveloped land that’s flat, and they have clear access,” says Claire Chang, co-owner of Greenfield Solar, a commercial small-residential installer. “A parking lot, a roof, a building, those all require more infrastructure, more materials, more skilled labor, and sometimes more permitting is required, because you’re dealing with snow and wind loads.”

For big ground-mounted systems, labor and installation range around $2 per watt of solar power, Chang said. For residential solar, costs rise to $3.50 per watt, and up to $5 per watt for a parking lot canopy. Those costs cut into profits and discourage investors.

However, cost and available space aren’t the only reasons large-scale solar on green spaces has taken such a prominent place in the state’s solar capacity.

“If the financial incentive from the SMART program were not there for this project, would the developer be interested? I believe the answer is no,” says Ludlow’s Aaron Saunders, the state representative for the 7th Hamden District who has been vocal in his opposition to the Shutesbury project since running to represent the newly created district last year. “We should not be subsidizing the clear-cutting of forest with ratepayer, taxpayer money.”

Established by the state in 2018, the SMART program pays solar projects a fixed incentive per kilowatt produced over a period of 20 years, nearly as long as the lifespan of an average solar panel. That state money, alongside federal subsidies, has allowed solar power to become as profitable as fossil fuels, encouraging investment by for-profit entities.

The program offers greater incentives for projects on the built environment and other more favorable siting, but those have not been enough to push development off green lands.

Moreover, due to a loophole in the SMART program, state incentives are available for solar development even on high biodiversity lands, as long as they are classified as community solar, the MassAudubon report notes. And now, even without the SMART program, solar is reaching a point where it may be cheaper than natural gas without subsidies in some areas, encouraging for-profit development.

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A full 12 bills now coming down the pipe address solar siting. Almost half these bills are sponsored by state lawmakers from western Massachusetts, including Saunders, Sabadosa, Sen. Jo Comerford, Rep. Natalie Blais, and Sen. Jacob Oliveira. The lawmakers note that western Mass has larger swaths of undeveloped land, making it a locus for conflict.

“We’re kind of the canary in the coal mine,” Saunders says. “We see it. It’s happening here.”

Saunders, for instance, has proposed a bill that would adjust the Dover Amendment to allow communities to restrict solar for the purposes of preserving forests, farms, or wetlands, rather than only public health as now.

Despite greater installation costs for rooftop or parking-lot solar, Chang suggests it might not cost that much more for individual ratepayers to buy the energy. The electricity goes to a lot of homes, spreading out costs. Plus, she notes, over 50% of a Massachusetts customer’s electricity bill relates to distribution and transmission, not production. Any change to production costs only affects a portion of the bill, lowering the increase overall.

“Even if the PV to install it on rooftops and parking lots were a little bit more expensive, that’s a little less than half your electric bill that might go up by a penny or two,” she says.

Still, that relative cost will climb as more and more solar gets on the grid, affecting a growing segment of an individual’s electric bill. MassAudubon’s Building Solar, Protecting Nature report acknowledges that their mid-range forest conservation plan will cost $900 million more than a business-as-usual scenario, a cost that will ultimately be borne by taxpayers and utility customers.

What about farmland?

I’m in Joe Czajkowski’s battered red pickup truck, watching muddy farm fields slip by under cloud cover as he puts his cell phone on speaker. We’re driving to the half-megawatt solar array that Hypersion Systems, LLC of Belchertown has installed on two acres of Czajkowski’s farmland.

“Can I get some carrots?” comes the voice over the phone.

“Sure, you can get some carrots,” says Czajkowski. “How many do you need?”

“Can I get 160?”

There’s a pause. Then, voice mellow and calm, Czajkowski says, “Sure, I can do that.”

“How’s your crop of brussel sprouts looking?”

“You know, fair. Not perfect. There’s some black balls on the bottom because, you know, it rained so much, but we’ll just cut ‘em higher. We’re gonna start picking maybe Thursday. Ok?”

Czajkowski farms mixed vegetables on 400 acres of farmland in Hadley and surrounding towns. When I meet him, he’s just driven up with a truckload of butternut squash. His family “has always farmed,” he tells me. “We’ve farmed here since 1916. Before that, we farmed in Europe.”

This year has been tough. He lost 60 acres of crops due to the summer’s heavy rains, and, he says, “there’s been a diminishing of crops on other acres because some stuff is spoiled.”

The solar array helps defray his costs. He receives a 17.5% monthly reduction in his electricity bill, which he says can cost him $75,000 a year for needs like refrigeration and food cutting. He also receives a lease payment from the solar company. Below the panels, he has planted broccoli, which he says did well, and he’s considering planting blueberries around the poles next year.

“Climate change is making it increasingly risky and expensive to farm,” says Caro Roszell, the soil health program manager for the American Farmland Trust. “Putting some land into dual-use solar can be one of the tools in the toolbox that farmers use to keep farming, because it provides a steady source of income.”

Like with forests, however, siting solar on farmland has remained controversial. A project proposed for 76 acres of a farm owned by the L’Etoile family in Northfield, Massachusetts, for instance, received several years of community pushback, including a legal complaint that neighbor Chris Kalinowski filed with the town. The complaint argued that the project should be prohibited based on town zoning requirements, and stated that the Planning Board “failed to adequately consider the agricultural value of the project site and long-term impacts of the loss of viable farmland.” An appeal of the complaint was dismissed this September by agreement of all parties, and the project is set to move forward.

Nathan L’Etoile, who is also the national farm viability managing director for the American Farmland Trust, will sit on the state siting commission, bringing agricultural solar interests to the table.

Many climate advocates agree that solar on farmland should be approached with caution.

Greg Garrison, the president of small installer Northeast Solar in Hatfield, grew up on a farm in Illinois, farming corn and soybeans and raising chickens.

“I think that all large scale siting for solar should be carefully thought out, and we shouldn’t be using farmland unless it’s dual use,” Garrison says. His company has installed solar power on area farms, but focuses on land not in agricultural production.

“Farmland is scarce. It’s very scarce. You have to look at the long-term resiliency of communities,” Garrison says. “Most of our most productive farmland is right along the river. There’s only so much acreage that we have. The more acreage that we give up to solar, the less we’re able to produce our own foods locally.”

Working farmland offers a training ground for younger farmers, he notes, an opportunity lost even if land is returned to agricultural use once a solar array’s 20-year lifespan expires. Moreover, even dual-use solar limits farmers to shade-tolerant crops or livestock.

The debate over farmland points to the fact that good management is crucial to improved outcomes for solar on greenlands.

Farmlands and grasslands, for instance, currently sequester much less carbon than forests. In bulk, the state’s farmlands emit more carbon than they take up, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan.

However, good management can improve that equation, notes Roszell. Grasslands tend to store less carbon than forests, but for longer periods of time, because the carbon is typically bound to minerals instead of more easily disturbed surface organics. By maintaining good vegetation cover beneath solar arrays, some carbon storage can be maintained or rebuilt.

Ground-mounted solar arrays can also become pollinator havens if managed for the right plants, says Grace Shiffrin, a master’s student at Umass Amherst who studies pollinator ecology at solar sites.

“The conversation I feel is mostly about whether we should clear forest,” Shiffrin said, “and that is a valid conversation. However, I feel like there also should be [a conversation on] what is the environment’s health after the solar facilities are built?”

Who should profit? Who should decide?

Dwayne Breger, director of the Umass Clean Energy Extension, says he started in solar in the 70’s and early 80’s, before climate change became the household word it is now.

“Back then, it was really about grassroots, and local ownership, and cut the ties, and screw capitalism, and all that. It was really the motivation of all the hippies and others trying to move this forward,” he says.

“As the market has now unveiled itself in fury, in the 2000s and 2020s and so forth, not just in Massachusetts but around the country, once again capitalism has taken over and we’ve got the big players that are just crowding out everyone else.”

Breger’s program has developed a process to help municipalities decide their own trajectory when it comes to solar in their community. The Community Planning for Solar Toolkit ideally helps towns design a proactive plan before major conflicts like the Shutesbury lawsuit erupt.

In a world where we’re radically rethinking our energy production, might it not be time to rethink who profits — and who gets to decide how renewable energy looks?

“We live in America. And so, the capitalist system has brought us to where we are today,” acknowledges Breger. “We don’t want to delay solar development. We don’t necessarily want to put the brakes on this profit-motive system that’s working fairly well in getting solar out there.”

He notes that every megawatt of solar requires about $2.5 million in capital. Without substantial state assistance, that cost can put large-scale solar projects out of reach for anyone except investor-owned financial asset firms like the ones that own PureSky.

Greenbanks, which are capital accumulation programs often spearheaded by government agencies or nonprofits, offer one option to pool financial resources to allow such larger projects, including distributed solar across community members working as a group.

Unlike fossil fuels, Breger said, solar offers the opportunity to decentralize energy production across the homes and properties of individuals and municipalities. That also spreads the wealth.

When solar is owned by big, non-local corporations, the vast bulk of the economic benefits — 85% — go to the owner, according to analyses by Breger’s team. Just 15% remain local, such as through lease payments, net metering discounts, and payments in lieu of taxes.

That disparity in wealth can lead to disparities in power.

“Companies who are trying to get the government to allow them to do something, I think historically they’ve been given, like, preferred stakeholder status,” Sloan says. “Just by the way things shake out, agencies, regulators think a lot about how to solve for their problems.”

Underserved communities, like those with less wealth or affected by historical injustices like racism, should be at the forefront of our thoughts when considering solar siting, Sloan notes.

Changes to several state regulations and programs could improve the ability of individuals to take advantage of solar and its economic benefits, including in low-income communities.

First among these are net-metering regulations, or how much compensation residential owners get when their solar arrays produce more energy than they use.

Right now, homeowners are only compensated up to 15 kilowatts. Utilities receive any remaining energy for free, which returns to the grid for other customers to use. That limit decreases the financial ability and incentive for residents to put larger arrays on their roofs, which in turn shrinks the state’s solar capacity.

Valessa Souter-Kline, the Northeast regional director for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a statement that updating the net-metering rules could help “jumpstart” what she called Massachusetts’ “stalled” residential solar economy.

A state bill passed in 2022 would increase net-metering benefits to 25 kilowatts; however, the bill has not yet been promulgated or enacted. The bill must still go through several state agencies and public comment before it can be signed into law. It could take another year before benefits are available, Chang said.

Chang also points to the now-expired state solar loan program, which used to provide 30% loan support to applicants with no tax liability, like low-income residents, non-profits, or cities. That support helped defray the cost of installing solar, especially since solar energy’s financial benefits take time to accrue.

“I want the governor and the legislature to look at refunding the solar loan program, and increase that loan support from 30% to 100% for low-income communities, so that there is a means for truly low-income folks to participate,” says Chang. “If they have a great roof to put solar on, they should be able to take advantage of that.”

The new state commission — with the participation of Sloan, environmental justice organizations including Springfield’s Arise for Social Justice, and members like Amy Stitely, chief of programs for the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities — is likely to look into these environmental equity issues. The commission, however, also includes representatives who may have competing concerns, ranging from state agencies and municipalities to utilities, clean energy industries, and builders.

Meeting responsibilities

“A community should be able to make some kind of statement about what they want their community to be like,” says Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson, Arizona.

Despite supporting solar power generally, Donnelly has been active in resisting large-scale renewable projects on sensitive desert lands in the West. Out of about 150 projects, he notes, his team has fought only about a half-dozen on ecosystems identified as most important.

Donnelly points out that zoning ideally offers a method for communities to plan how development for decarbonization should look. Yet Illinois has a state override of local restrictions for solar and Michigan passed similar legislation this fall.

“Many of these communities are trying to enforce limits on solar and those things are being ruled unconstitutional on the state level,” he continued. “To what extent should communities be able to control their own environment?”

Donnelly emphasizes that insufficient planning to decarbonize the economy exists on the national or state level. In relying on free-market forces to fix the problem, he said, “we’re really gambling here” that a suitable solution can be found without threatening other important values.

“Is this just enabling the growth machine to continue growing and consuming,” he asked, “rather than turning us to a greener way of life?”

With the price of solar plummeting and different levels of government becoming more interested in incentivizing it, siting policy has become the latest locus of experimentation in making necessary changes to the process of energy production while still ensuring that private profit can be derived from it.

Massachusetts may be able to take a page from other playbooks. In Australia, permitting for residential solar takes only a day compared to up to six months in the United States, writes Saul Griffith, author of Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future — a major hurdle for residential uptake of the technology and its benefits. Furthermore, regulations including permitting and tariffs lead to rooftop solar costing twice as much in the United States as overseas, argued OpenSolar CEO Andrew Birch in 2018.

“The policy prescriptions for the United States are straightforward,” Griffith writes: “simplify regulations and promote fair access to the grid, allowing every generator, big or small, to connect as equals and supply electricity and battery storage without burdensome connection rules.”

Can a set of policies be written that will “jumpstart” the currently slow residential, municipal, and small-scale commercial solar economy and allow it to thrive? That will keep Weizenbaum’s forest pristine? That will allow Joe Czajkowski’s farm to weather difficult seasons? And that will keep incentive burdens on the state light enough that nobody eventually scratches their head and asks, “Should the state itself just build this?”

Only time will tell.

In the meantime, Massachusetts consumes 17 times more energy than it produces, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Overall, New England relies on natural gas for 52% of its electricity, according to 2022 ISO New England data, with Massachusetts alone accounting for about half of that usage.

Solar versus green land therefore isn’t the only relevant comparison, points out Roszell.

“We should compare solar here in Massachusetts to electricity generated from burning natural gas derived from fracking in Appalachia, which is an environmental disaster that provides a large portion of the energy we consume here in Massachusetts,” she says.

“Because we can’t see the fracking happening in Appalachia from here, it’s too easy to ignore it, but I think we ought to include it in our thoughts when we consider the impact of scaling up solar here in Massachusetts.”

Naila Moreira is a science writing specialist at Smith College, where she directs the Journalism Concentration.

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Exposing Dark Money at Town Meeting

Efforts are underway to close the loophole exempting Town Meeting political activity from the Commonwealth’s financial disclosure laws

“‘Enough is enough  …. We’re seeing an unprecedented level of off-Cape and off-Island interests trying to sway voters one way or another most of the time for either an interest group or a set of individual peoples personal and financial gain … ”

— State Sen. Julian Cyr

Massachusetts State Senator, Cape & Islands

What is the Town Meeting loophole?

Massachusetts’ campaign finance laws turn 50 this November – and two state elected officials from Cape Cod want to close a surprising loophole that left political activity at Town Meetings out of the financial disclosure requirements. Triggered in part by the surge in PAC-style funding driving warrant article lobbying, State Sen. Julian Cyr from Truro and State Rep. Dylan Fernandes from Falmouth have filed a bill to close the loophole and make Town Meeting political activity subject to the same reporting requirement as other political activity.

What is Dark Money?

Dark Money refers to .political and campaign spending whose source can’t be identified. It aligns closely with the practice of political action committees and similar organizations using a shell name to lobby for a particular outcome. For example, a group of fossil fuel advocates might fight against rebate funds for alternative fuels under the name  “Citizens for Equal Transportation Rights.” Without campaign finance disclosure laws, voters won’t know that viewpoints expressed actually represent the fossil fuel industry which has a vested interest in the outcome as they listen to the arguments.

What will the proposed bill do?

The bill proposed by State Sen. Julian Cyr and State Re. Dylan Fernandes will simply make Town Meeting political activity subject to the same financial disclosure requirements that other political activity must follow.

Why is there a Town Meeting loophole?

Cyr says that lawmakers created what has become  Chapter 55 of the Massachusetts General Laws 50 years ago, they didn’t anticipate the type of political activity now seen at local Town Meeting and didn’t address it in the legislation.  However, the past few years have seen a rise in this type of activity, along with undisclosed funding for lobbying for or against Town Meeting articles.

For more information:

The Wired, Wired West: The Collapse of Public Internet in Easthampton and the Struggle to Connect Massachusetts’s Overlooked Communities

When Easthampton voters cast their ballots in 2019, there was only one contested race for city office.

But it wasn’t any of those unopposed candidates for mayor, City Council or School Committee that received the most total votes in the election. Instead, it was a ballot question asking voters to establish “a city-owned company that can provide utilities services including telecommunications systems and internet to households.” Of the 4,195 residents who voted in the election, 79% agreed they wanted Easthampton to create a municipally owned utility, which officials had begun exploring to bring city-owned broadband internet to town.

But after some five years of work toward establishing a municipal network of faster fiber optic cables to deliver broadband — including the passage of the ballot initiative, a detailed feasibility study and $150,742 in taxpayer money spent on design work for the project — Easthampton’s path toward a public utility came to an abrupt end earlier this year.

City residents are still getting fiber internet. But instead of a publicly owned utility rendering that service, a private equity-owned company called GoNetSpeed will be providing it. On May 25, the mayor’s office and GoNetSpeed announced a “partnership” to install fiber optic cables, which use light signals to transfer information more quickly and reliably than other platforms, across the city. GoNetSpeed said that it was fully funding the $3.6 million it would take to build the network citywide and may begin service as early as the start of 2024.

For some, the arrival of GoNetSpeed was a long-awaited development in a city where telecom giant Charter Communications is the only internet service provider. An advisory committee concluded in 2021 that there was “general dissatisfaction” in Easthampton with the quality and price of current internet services — issues that GoNetSpeed has promised to improve with its fiber optic cables and by providing competition to Charter.

“Through this partnership, we are able to ensure that internet connectivity is broadly available in a time when it is a necessity for our daily lives,” Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said in that May announcement.

But for others who dreamed that a city-owned broadband utility would serve residents better than a for-profit company, the mayor’s decision to work with GoNetSpeed represents a “missed opportunity.” Several of those involved in the campaign for a public internet network in Easthampton expressed disappointment in the development, pointing to cheap and reliable municipal broadband services in neighboring communities like Westfield, South Hadley and Leverett as examples of what the city could have had.

Paul St. Pierre chaired the Easthampton Telecommunications Advisory Committee, which between 2019 and 2021 studied broadband infrastructure, market conditions in the region and what the city could do to ensure affordable and effective internet service for all. The group’s report recommended the city move forward with municipal broadband, concluding Easthampton could do so without raising property taxes.

As many as 7% of Americans don’t have adequate broadband service, according to federal estimates. In Massachusetts, census data show that 10% of the state doesn’t have access to a broadband subscription, a “digital divide” that exists in both rural and urban communities and separates those who have access to affordable, high-speed internet and those who don’t. In the Connecticut River Valley, the divide is even more pronounced; data that the state-run Massachusetts Broadband Institute recently presented at a listening session show that 28% of the 281,000 households in the region have no broadband internet subscriptions and 52% of municipalities have “little to no competition in the broadband market.”

In Easthampton, the Telecommunications Advisory Committee looked toward public ownership of city broadband as a way to address those inequities in their own community.

“It was about creating a municipal utility and kind of viewing internet service as a utility and no longer a luxury,” St. Pierre told The Shoestring. “Seeing that the private company is coming in, in a way it kind of validates what we were saying: that this is an economically feasible thing that we could have done.”


Nearly eight years ago, ambitious plans were moving forward to bring publicly owned broadband to some of the least-connected municipalities of western Massachusetts. But then, the project came to a screeching halt.

At the time, 40 rural towns were preparing to build out their own fiber optic network as a regionally owned cooperative, WiredWest. Then the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, under newly elected Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, suddenly pulled support from the project in favor of partnering with for-profit companies. The initiative “crashed and burned,” Berkshire Eagle investigative reporter Larry Parnass wrote in 2017, over MBI’s concerns with WiredWest’s business model — worries that the cooperative’s backers said were overstated. WiredWest still exists, but now provides services to only six member towns.

The demise of WiredWest’s initial plans, however, was far from the end of public broadband initiatives in the region, some of which have flourished in the time since. For example, western Massachusetts communities with established municipal electric utilities — known as municipal light plants — have built out their own fiber networks in recent years and worked with other municipalities to help them do the same.

Leading that charge in Hampden County is Westfield Gas & Electric’s municipal internet service Whip City Fiber, which serves some 20 municipalities across the region, from West Springfield to Wendell and including the remaining WiredWest towns.

In Hampshire County, the South Hadley Electric Light Department, or SHELD, has steadily built out its fiber network to 95% of the town and has helped both Shutesbury and Leverett build their own networks. SHELD General Manager Sean Fitzgerald told The Shoestring that although a municipal utility has to make a certain degree of revenue, it doesn’t have to operate with profits in mind like an investor-backed company. That means that public utilities’ rates tend to be lower and more stable, and their customer support more responsive, he said.

“There’s really kind of a renaissance going on with internet service providers in the United States,” Fitzgerald said. “In our region, what you’re seeing is a lot of towns, dozens of them, voting to become their own municipal light plant … The reason that’s happening is that the larger corporations aren’t investing in fiber optics in western Massachusetts.”

That is particularly true in rural communities where smaller populations are spread out across a wider geographic area, making private companies hesitant to invest because of the high costs of installation and lower customer base to recoup those costs.

Some rural communities elsewhere in New England have decided to band together to build broadband infrastructure. In Vermont, for example, 213 municipalities — representing 76% of the state’s population — had joined a “communications union district” that can issue revenue bonds to finance broadband networks as of November 2022. Maine has also witnessed the creation of two regional broadband utility districts, and last year state lawmakers there passed a bill that supports municipal broadband infrastructure.

Other municipalities in Massachusetts have considered a hybrid approach through public-private partnerships.

Last month, Northampton released a market and feasibility study of municipal broadband that it hired the firm Design Nine to conduct. (In 2021, Northampton residents voted 91.3% in favor of creating a municipal light plant.) That report suggested the city could play a key role in providing broadband infrastructure by, for example, building the fiber network and leasing it out or partnering with a private internet service provider by financing the buildout in return for guarantees the company would service all neighborhoods. The report recommended that the city not become its own internet service provider.

Elsewhere in the state, a group of 26 towns — mostly in eastern Massachusetts but including East Longmeadow, Hampden and Wilbraham — formed the Massachusetts Broadband Coalition, which has been exploring similar public-private partnerships, according to reporting from the community development-focused national nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Sean Gonsalves, the associate director for communications at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, told The Shoestring that efforts to build public internet infrastructure picked up momentum when the pandemic began in 2020. Many people started attending school and working from home, and some communities realized that they should be treating the internet as a fundamental municipal service, he said.

“You’re looking at it as civil infrastructure much like roads and water systems, and when a municipality bonds to build these networks … you don’t need to make a lot of money and you have a longer time to pay off those bonds,” Gonsalves said.

As part of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that Congress passed in 2021, the federal government is now pouring $42 billion into high-speed internet infrastructure, including $147 million in Massachusetts. Later this year, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute is expected to release a plan for spending that money, which must be used first to bring broadband to entirely unserved, largely rural communities. Only after that are states allowed to spend money on communities designated as “underserved” based on the availability of higher-speed internet — money that Gonsalves said could be used to connect, for example, low-income apartment buildings.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has been on an “Internet for All” listening tour of the state as it puts together that plan for spending those dollars. It remains to be seen whether the bulk of those Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment funds, as they’re known, will go to fostering publicly owned operations or private companies in Massachusetts.

Given the parameters of the program, though, BEAD money is less likely to arrive in municipalities like Easthampton and Northampton, leaving those communities looking for other ways to bring fiber to homes.

In a municipal broadband community meeting last month introducing the Northampton report, Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra told those gathered that federal and state lawmakers have said Northampton likely would not qualify for BEAD funds. Design Nine consultant Andrew Cohill said that those challenges Northampton is facing mirror those of many other municipalities.

“It’s really unfortunate the way, particularly the federal funding, has been exclusively for unserved and in some cases underserved areas,” Cohill said. “There’s a lot of municipalities in the country that do not have adequate high-speed broadband and that is also affordable. And so the financing is a big challenge.”


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools and businesses shuttered their doors. For Easthampton resident Jason Miranda, that meant he and his family had two parents working and two children learning at home, straining their internet connection to the brink. Others had it even worse, he said.

“People who didn’t have access to a reliable internet connection were having to go sit in their cars and sit in the parking lot of the schools to do their homework,” said Miranda, who also sat on the Easthampton Telecommunications Advisory Committee.

Miranda said that he tends to favor public ownership and control of vital services, and that the committee found that many other city residents were excited about that prospect when it came to municipal broadband. The project could have started in one neighborhood, using the revenues from that to expand the network out to cover the whole city.

As Easthampton began down the path of exploring municipal broadband, the city initially contracted with SHELD, South Hadley’s public utility, to build out its broadband network. But after SHELD finished the first phase of that work conducting a utility-pole survey and drawing up a complete city-wide design for the project, LaChapelle decided to move in a different direction.

This summer, shortly after GoNetSpeed and the mayor’s office announced that the company was coming to town, the City Council signed off on paying SHELD $150,742 out of the city’s reserve account for the work SHELD did instead of going to court over the breaking of the contract.

GoNetSpeed is a conglomeration of small, previously independent telephone companies scattered across the country, including in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Originally known as OTELCO, the company was publicly traded until 2021, when the private equity firm Oak Hill Capital bought the company and took it private.

In municipalities big and small alike, GoNetSpeed is pouring millions of dollars into fiber investments in Connecticut, Maine, New York and western Massachusetts, where Amherst was the first town GoNetSpeed connected to its network in July.

“GoNetspeed is working to ensure that more communities throughout Massachusetts will soon have access to a high-speed 100% fiber internet infrastructure,” the company’s press release said at the time. “In the coming months, more communities throughout the state will join Amherst in having access to GoNetspeed’s fiber internet.”

Jamie Hoare, GoNetspeed’s chief legal counsel, told The Shoestring that while he believes there are places where a “municipal solution” is appropriate to building fiber networks, private companies can save taxpayers money because cities and towns won’t have to bond to build that infrastructure.

“I think an easier way to approach the issue, where available, is to allow private providers to build their networks and to remove the barriers that exist for that,” he said.

To that end, the company is backing legislation that would speed up the process for granting applicants like GoNetSpeed and others access to utility poles. That process is currently overseen by the companies that own the pole network, and Hoare said that makes it costly and sluggish for possible competitors to obtain the efficient access they’re entitled to on those poles. Hoare said the “intransigence” of those companies is standing in GoNetSpeed’s way, not competition from municipally run networks.

(In other states, telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast have lobbied for bills that restrict or outright ban municipalities from establishing public broadband networks. The organization BroadbandNow has identified 16 states that still have those kinds of laws on the books.)

GoNetSpeed has said that in a region where a large majority of residents only have one internet service provider to choose from, the company’s arrival in Easthampton will create competition and drive down prices.

“The profit motive is what drives us to keep our prices down to attract as many customers as we can because we understand that customers do have choices in this area and, yes, what we provide is the best service,” he said.

LaChapelle said that it was ultimately her who, after crunching numbers and looking at timelines, decided to welcome GoNetSpeed instead of possibly taking on debt to support municipal internet. She said that the city has a lot of projects in the works and that she had to choose what to spend public dollars on. GoNetSpeed said it would connect the entire city to its network, and that it wouldn’t cost the city anything, so LaChapelle signed an agreement with the company.

“I really wanted to see broadband across the city and I didn’t want to have to do it in chunks,” she said. “And I didn’t want to have to commit the city to having to bond while this [municipal light plant] was getting up and running.”

Some of those who worked on bringing municipal broadband to Easthampton, however, have questioned whether a private company will benefit customers in the long term or keep its promises to build out the entire city.

“On the one hand it’s good that we have competition now, we have more than one offering,” Miranda said. “But that said, it remains to be seen the quality of the service and what kind of price they’re going to come in at and what those prices are going to look like year over year. I certainly don’t think it’s as competitive as a municipal service could have been. Or as responsible.”

In its “joint working initiative agreement” with Easthampton, which The Shoestring obtained through a public records request, GoNetSpeed agreed to “building and deploying a fiber network city-wide to homes and businesses, without installation fees for residential customers, as soon as possible.” That, however, is “subject to supply chain and/or state agency and other third parties.”

“Sure, what a corporation puts into a letter, it’s not scripture,” LaChapelle conceded. “But they’ve made good on their promises so far.”

As part of the agreement, the company will also support the city’s efforts to educate residents about the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides up to a $30 monthly discount on internet service for households at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines. (On Tuesday, LaChapelle’s office also announced that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute had selected Easthampton to be in the first cohort of communities it will help develop a “digital equity plan” that will “outline a path for closing the digital divide.” The city and its consultants will hold a listening session of their own on Oct. 25 at 6 p.m. at Mountain View School.)

Gonsalves, the broadband expert at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said that he isn’t familiar with the specifics of Easthampton’s situation. But speaking generally, he said that private-public partnerships work best when communities are investing capital into the project too, allowing them a real seat at the table. When a municipality just plays “a support role,” he said it is very difficult, if not impossible, to have any say.

“Generally speaking, the more skin in the game that a community has, the more say they have in terms of the outcome: timeline, affordability, reliability standards,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things that can be part of a private-public partnership and can be negotiated.”

Others have expressed concern about the possibility that GoNetSpeed gets gobbled up by a bigger competitor at some point in the future.

Private equity firms invest large pools of money — from wealthy people or endowments, for example. Often, a strategy they use to make handsome returns on those investments is by buying companies, restructuring them and selling them at a higher price.

Before Oak Hill Capital bought OTELCO in 2021, the company was publicly traded and, for that reason, had to make regular disclosures to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In one filing OTELCO made to the SEC in 2019, the company pointed to Oak Hill Capital’s role in gobbling up the competition in New England.

“Consolidation in the telecom sector over the past few years has significantly shrunk the universe of Otelco’s competitors, especially in the Northeast, with the completed acquisitions of Firstlight, Oxford Networks and Sovernet by Oak Hill Capital,” the report said.

The report said that one of OTELCO’s “operational objectives” was the expansion of its fiber network, increasing revenue per customer and making the company “more attractive for targeted acquisition.”

That’s exactly what happened in 2021, when Oak Hill Capital bought the company and took it private. Now, some have expressed worries that one of the telecom giants will purchase GoNetSpeed after it builds out more of its fiber networks.

“There’s no control in the long term,” Miranda said. “It does concern me, especially since private equity is involved and when they can’t get their money back they break it up and sell the parts or it just goes away.”

Hoare, the GoNetSpeed lawyer, said that it doesn’t seem like Oak Hill Capital has plans to seek a buyer and that the company plans to stay in the region.

“It’s difficult to think about what does the future hold, but we’re not looking to join up with other companies in the area,” he said.


A thin blanket of fog lay draped across Easthampton last Thursday morning as workers in reflective, neon coats moved down South Street in bucket trucks. At one end of the street sat a large spool of thick fiber-optic cables, spinning slowly as workers let out the line and hung it from one utility pole to the next.

When St. Pierre learned that Easthampton had jettisoned plans for municipal fiber and that GoNetSpeed was beginning work in the city, he said it was bittersweet. The city probably could have done it better, he said, but GoNetSpeed’s arrival will mean more competition.

“I hope they’re able to deliver a quality service that would serve the people of Easthampton effectively,” St. Pierre said. And while he’s not familiar with GoNetSpeed, he said the bar is low for them. “It would be hard for them to do worse than Charter. They’d have to really try.”

Others involved with the Easthampton Telecommunications Advisory Committee described the development as a disappointment. Miranda said that when the committee handed in their report, he never heard about it again from city officials.

“We never got a follow-up, we never got invited to the City Council meeting when they discussed it,” Miranda said. It was the first time he got involved in a city committee, and he said the lack of communication has made him leery about participating in something like that again. “I think our job was done, but at the same time, it’s sort of like all the work we had done just went into a black hole.”

LaChapelle said that she isn’t under any illusions that GoNetSpeed is “the friendliest corporation in the world;” they’re not, she said. The company didn’t need Easthampton’s permission to begin the work of building its own network in town, though LaChapelle said GoNetSpeed likely wouldn’t have entered the market — which Hoare, the company’s lawyer, described as “attractive” — if a municipal utility were there to compete for customers.

“Is it disappointing that we won’t have our own broadband? Yes,” LaChapelle said. “But also, going forward and staying with a private company, I feel like the city in 10 years, in 20 years, will be more on top of technology with GoNetSpeet than with [a municipal light plant] that has to continually upgrade and improve lines in the city.”

St. Pierre said that he sympathizes with City Hall, given the administration’s long list of projects now in the works to improve quality of life in the city.

“Unfortunately, the municipality, for whichever reason, was not able to move forward and the private company saw the opportunity and jumped on it,” he said. “Even though we could have done it on a municipal level if we had moved a little faster.”

City Councilor Tom Peake was perhaps the biggest proponent of municipal broadband, moving the project through two City Council votes in order to get the question on the ballot asking residents if they wanted to create a municipal light plant. Peake declined an on-the-record interview about LaChapelle’s decision. In a statement, he said that it came down to the mayor and her team deciding to head in a different direction.

“I was opposed to the decision, but I understand why she made it,” Peake said. “This network will get built out, and it won’t cost the city anything. We also won’t own it or gain any of the benefits of owning it, which to me is a huge missed opportunity. On the other hand, it will allegedly be built much faster than the timeline we had for financing and building a municipal network.”

“Tough call either way,” he added.

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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Massachusetts seeks to streamline approvals for community choice aggregation

City Hall in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

Massachusetts officials are proposing policy solutions to address a bureaucratic backlog that municipal leaders and clean energy advocates say is bogging down one of the state’s most successful drivers of clean electricity purchases.

Nineteen communities across the state are waiting for public utility regulators to rule on proposed community choice aggregation plans, in which local governments negotiate with power suppliers for lower prices or a higher share of renewables.

Some of these municipalities have been waiting for more than two years to launch their programs. Another 16 are waiting to see if the state will let them modify existing programs. As the proposals languish, municipalities are missing out on chances to save residents money and cut carbon emissions.

In response to this backlog, the state energy department has proposed a new system to streamline the process, though many advocates are highly skeptical of these guidelines.

“I’m not sure that the way they’ve drafted them is really going to address the backlog,” said Martha Grover, sustainability manager for the city of Melrose, which first adopted community choice aggregation in 2015 and has held off updating the program in recent years because of the delays.

In addition, state Rep. Tommy Vitolo has introduced a bill that would require faster response times and allow municipalities to make some changes to programs without seeking state approval.

Massachusetts was the first state to introduce these programs, as a part of electricity restructuring legislation passed in 1997. The policy allows individual cities and towns or groups of municipalities to use the promise of a built-in customer base to negotiate with power suppliers for prices. Generally, residents are automatically enrolled but can opt out at any time.

The Cape Light Compact, a group of 21 towns on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, formed the state’s first aggregation program in 2000. The idea was slow to catch on, however, until electricity prices started rising in 2013 and 2014, prompting more municipalities to seek alternatives. Today, there are 168 municipal aggregation plans active in the state, saving consumers more than $200 million annually, according to a report from the nonprofit Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

Though not explicitly an emissions reduction program, aggregation also allows municipalities to include more renewable energy in their portfolios than legally required. And many of them do exactly that: 76 of Massachusetts’ aggregation programs included extra renewable content in 2022, according to the consumers alliance. Another 40 communities let individual residents opt-in to higher levels of renewable energy. In 2022, Massachusetts’ green energy aggregation programs increased demand for renewable energy in the state by more than 1 million megawatt-hours, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance calculated.

“There is no other program in the commonwealth that produces cleaner electrons without subsidy,” said alliance executive director Larry Chretien.

The delays were first caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement from the state energy department. Additionally, the complexity of the rules and requirements for a successful application have also slowed things down, state officials and municipal leaders agree. Each time regulators rule on a plan, any new precedent set by that ruling must be complied with by all future applicants. This requirement makes it hard for municipalities to understand the rules and forces frequent revisions. It also makes it more painstaking for the state to ensure a proposal meets the ever-changing slate of requirements.

“There are now 168 approved plans and we are held accountable to rules and ways of operating that are buried in the footnotes,” Grover said.

The proposed solutions

The state has responded to the backlog by releasing draft guidelines that summarize and simplify the detailed requirements. It has also issued an application template and proposed an expedited approval process for municipalities that use the template.

“Addressing these delays is a top priority for the [Department of Public Utilities], and we look forward to announcing finalized guidelines that will help facilitate a timely review of applications,” said department chair Jamie Van Nostrand.

For many municipalities, however, the guidelines make no changes to the process, but only formalize the existing approach, which many say amounts to micromanagement. At least eight cities and towns have filed testimony so far arguing that the proposal erodes local control and would be unlikely to speed up approvals. The draft guidelines would make the process “more burdensome and less efficient,” testified Michael Ossing, city council president in Marlborough, which adopted community choice aggregation in 2006, saving residents an estimated $26 million over the past 17 years.

“Aggregation should be under municipal control,” said Anthony Rinaldi, an Amesbury city councilor. “We should control how we implement the program, how we inform our citizens. But they want to control every little thing.”

Vitolo’s bill offers an alternative approach. It would address the delays by requiring the state to issue a decision on aggregation applications within 90 days. If this deadline is not met, a program would automatically be approved. If regulators rejected a program, and applicants resubmitted an amended plan within 30 days, the state would then have 30 days to issue a decision.

The bill would also allow cities and towns to make certain changes — including periodic changes to prices and product offerings, means of providing notifications to customers, and sharing translated materials — to their programs without returning to utility regulators for approval. Vitolo points to Boston, which launched a community choice program in 2021, as an example: the city wants to distribute translations of its information materials, but can’t do so without getting in the slow-moving line for approval.

“It’s been frustrating,” Vitolo said. “We want to allow these aggregators to make simple straightforward changes without going to the [state].”

Vitolo’s bill had a committee hearing in late September. Now supporters must wait to see if it gains traction in the legislature.

Massachusetts seeks to streamline approvals for community choice aggregation is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

The State of the Labor Movement

EASTHAMPTON — At 92 years old, Bob Jensen has spent nearly all his life in the labor movement. A union bricklayer who arrived in western Massachusetts on a football scholarship at American International College, he ended up becoming a labor educator at the University of Connecticut, a negotiator with the American Federation of Teachers and an active organizer locally.

As Jensen surveys the state of organized labor in western Massachusetts and beyond, after decades involved in workers’ struggles locally and nationwide, he said there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

“Workers are fed up in every area,” he said, from airline pilots to baristas. “They’re organizing to demand what is rightfully theirs.”

Jensen was addressing a large gathering of union members, activists and organizers celebrating Labor Day at the Western Mass Area Labor Federation’s picnic in Easthampton on Sunday.

As a wave of high-profile union organizing continues to sweep across the country, including in western Massachusetts, several recent nationwide polls have found that support for unions is higher than it has been in decades. After a summer of strikes and almost strikes, from actors and writers to UPS drivers, 2023 may see the most U.S. workers walking off the job since the 2018 “Red for Ed” teacher strikes.

Western Massachusetts has had its own moment in the spotlight, too, amid all of that organizing. Since last summer, Hadley has been home to several “firsts” in unionizing large corporate chains: Trader Joe’s last July, Barnes & Noble this May and Michael’s last month. Educators across the region fought public battles for new contracts, retail workers walked off the job, nurses picketed the loss of hospital beds and daycare workers in Springfield went out on strike.

Now, as the summer comes to a close, labor organizers and union leaders around the area are reflecting on the rejuvenated state of the labor movement in western Massachusetts and the struggles they see ahead.

“It definitely feels like there’s a new energy and excitement,” Max Page, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told The Shoestring. “So often, we’re like: ‘Everything sucks.’ Now we’re like: ‘What can we achieve.’”

Page is part of the rank-and-file, activist caucus within the MTA — Educators for a Democratic Union — that over the past 10 years has reshaped the union’s vision to fight aggressively for progressive policies inside and outside of the classroom. Last year, the MTA successfully put forward a ballot question that raised taxes on the state’s millionaires to better fund education and transportation — an initiative Page said that western Massachusetts turned out in large numbers to vote for in November, playing a vital role in its passage. The union has also supported educators across the state going out on strike, despite the fact that state law bars public employees from striking.

Now, the MTA is prioritizing two long-time goals of education activists: scrapping Massachusetts’ high-stakes MCAS testing and making public higher education debt-free for the state’s students.

“This is the year to win it,” he said.

The past year, immigrant workers have also seen some of the fruits of their longtime struggles for economic and racial justice.

In a phone interview with The Shoestring, Pioneer Valley Workers Center Executive Director Claudia Rosales said that immigrant workers and their families won a major victory this year when, in July, undocumented immigrants could begin applying for driver’s licenses in Massachusetts. After years of organizing work by the Workers Center and other groups across the state, state lawmakers last year passed the Work and Family Mobility Act — a major priority for immigrant workers and their allies across the state.

“It’s so important because it stops families from being separated by detentions on the part of ICE,” Rosales said, using the acronym for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Now, Rosales said, the next legislative priority for local farm workers is challenging the state’s minimum wage law. After a five-year hike to the minimum wage, workers in Massachusetts earn a minimum wage of $15 per hour. However, agricultural laborers are exempt from that law, meaning employers can pay them as little as $8 per hour.

“We need to get that off the books,” she said.

Those who have spent decades organizing workers locally expressed optimism that now is the time to win victories like those.

Jeff Jones first got involved in the local labor movement as a Stop &s Shop worker in the 1980s. Now the president of UFCW Local 1459 and the executive board of the Western Mass Area Labor Federation, he said those entering the workforce now are increasingly organizing for better pay and conditions.

“It’s a whole new, younger generation that has come in and is eager to learn the history of the labor movement and apply it,” he said. And western Massachusetts, he added, is “one of the most progressive pockets in the labor movement,” having an outsized influence despite the region’s small size.

Clare Hammonds, a professor at the influential UMass Amherst Labor Center, pointed to the workers unionizing at Barnes & Noble and Michael’s as an example of western Massachusetts organizers tackling big issues.

But union membership does still remain in decline, however, despite the high-profile surge in new organizing. In 2022, union membership hit a record low of 10.1%. But Hammonds said that as more workers win unions, that winning is contagious.

The issues those workers in Hadley and beyond are discussing — fair pay and decent hours, for example — aren’t new. What is new, she said, is the energy and support they feel from the community as they step up and take risks to improve their working conditions.

“It feels like we’re on the cusp of something really exciting,” she said.

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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