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Friday, February 3, 2012

Nashua officials have mixed views on publicizing Pennichuck salaries

NASHUA – Given the city is the sole shareholder of Pennichuck Corp. stock, bought and paid for with the sale of municipal bonds, Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and several aldermen said they don’t object to the public release of names and salaries of Pennichuck employees.

Other city officials said they favor keeping the wages of the company’s hourly workers private.

Aldermen-at-Large Mark Cookson, David Deane, Jim Donchess and Barbara Pressly said now that Nashua owns Pennichuck, salaries should be available for public consumption.

“Everything should be public,” Pressly said. The request to publicize salaries probably came as a surprise to the employees, she said. “But everything they do falls under the Right-to-Know Law. That doesn’t mean they’re city employees. It’s just (salaries) are for the public record.”

Donchess also favors the publication of salaries. “What if a head of Pennichuck makes more than the school superintendent?” he said. “Or a head of Pennichuck makes more than (a manager) at the sewer treatment plant or the police chief?”

Cookson said he understands why the union would fight the release of salaries. “They don’t perceive themselves to be public employees, but I believe they are,” he said.

Meanwhile, Aldermanic President Brian McCarthy said he would wait to see how the court handles the matter because he’s unsure about how Pennichuck employees should be classified.

“I just don’t know the answer to that,” he said.

The city’s intent in owning Pennichuck “is to have as much transparency as possible,” but also recognize labor laws, McCarthy said. “This is the first time it’s been done,” McCarthy said of The Telegraph’s request for the salaries.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ward 2 Alderman Richard Dowd said barring a court ruling that determines Pennichuck employees are city employees, “My feeling is their salaries should remain private.”

Their varied opinions about transparency and privacy underscored the tension behind the city taking ownership of a for-profit water utility that is governed by a separate board of directors, while falling under state regulation.

The Telegraph requested the salary information for Pennichuck employees Tuesday, prompting the labor union of most Pennichuck employees to sue the company and the newspaper. A temporary injunction blocking the release of salaries was granted, with a Feb. 14 court hearing scheduled to review the information request against the state Right-to-Know law.

Lozeau said she doesn’t have a problem with the salaries being published, but she can understand the union’s objection after the employees had long been afforded privacy while they worked for private ownership.

“I don’t consider them public employees, but that doesn’t translate into whether people should see their salaries,” Lozeau said. She added later: “I’m not sure what all the answers are. … It’s not so black and white.”

City officials have long stressed they would not interfere with the day-to-day operations of Pennichuck and its subsidiaries, which include three water utilities.

Pennichuck is not a city department either. A separate board of directors oversees operations and decides matters such as salaries. Pennichuck employees also belong to a union separate from those representing city workers.

After the city’s $200 million purchase of the company became official Jan. 25, operations at the company proceeded without a hiccup, Lozeau and others have said. With the exception of two Pennichuck executives leaving the company last week with $1.16 million in publicly-funded severance pay, the utilities, by all measures, continued providing water as they had under private ownership.

With the city becoming the sole shareholder of Pennichuck stock, and thus a publicly-held corporation, The Telegraph asked for the names and salaries of all employees with the expectation that the request would be supported by Right-to-Know requirements of public entities.

Alderman Deane questioned whether Pennichuck is in fact a for-profit corporation seeing that the city won’t pay stock dividends and that company revenue will strictly finance capital, depreciation and other costs. “The city owns the company. They should be made public,” he said of the salaries.

Other aldermen said they don’t have a clear answer to the issue.

Alderman-at-Large Lori Wilshire said city ownership of Pennichuck is “uncharted water for us, and it’s not something we’re used to. I’m not sure how I feel about it. They’re not technically city employees.”

Ward 7 Alderman June Caron said if a judge rules against the Pennichuck union, the employees will have to accept their salaries are in the public domain. But she sympathizes with them.

Caron worked in the city Parks and Recreation Department for 41 years before retiring and was uncomfortable with people knowing her annual salary, she said. “I would not have problem with them being private,” Caron said of the salaries. “I consider (Pennichuck) a private company within the city.”

Ward 4 Alderman Arthur Craffey said salaries of Pennichuck management should be available to the public, but not the wage amounts of the “line guys, the ones doing the grunt work. They should be private.”

Craffey said he knows many Pennichuck employees, and he doesn’t want to know how much they make.

Although individual salary amounts of city employees are public knowledge, Craffey said when aldermen vote on the city budget, they see only salary totals for departments and not line-item amounts for individuals, a separation he prefers.

Ward 5 Alderman Michael Tabacsko said requesting Pennichuck salaries was probably “a rude awakening” for employees only a week into having a new owner.

“I get the idea of openness, sunshine, but when it comes down to it, why does The Telegraph need to know what the (water) meter reader makes?” Tabascko said.

But Tabascko said he can see both sides of the argument and perhaps a compromise can be reached: release salaries of only management or wait six months until publicizing all employee wages.

Ward 1 Alderman Kathy Vitale said she didn’t know enough about the lawsuit to immediately comment. Ward 6 Alderman Paul Chasse said he would “have to think about it” and had no comment.

Aldermen Diane Sheehan, Mary Ann Melizzi-Golja and Daniel Moriarty didn’t immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

The Telegraph was able to reach only two of the nine members – aside from Lozeau, the 10th member – of the Pennichuck board of directors.

Board member Elizabeth Dunn said, “Clearly my intent, and I believe the board’s intent … is to be as open and transparent as possible.” But the question of whether Pennichuck employees are public employees is in the hands of the court, Dunn said, adding that she didn’t want offer her opinion.

And board member Jay Lustig said he hadn’t studied the issue deeply enough to have an answer.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-6528 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com. Also check out McKeon (@Telegraph_AMcK) on Twitter.