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Energy at the root of rift in the Village of Westfield

In Westfield, a picturesque village in the heart of grape country, you can find a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln, a farmers’ market and rows of well-kept 19th-century homes.

You can also find, these days, a mayor embroiled in a head-scratching series of events likely to spill over when village trustees meet Monday night.

Mayor Michael VandeVelde previously had a side job as an “energy consultant" for Ambit Energy. It’s a Texas-based energy provider that expanded into New York and found clusters of customers around Westfield and Chautauqua County.

Mayor VandeVelde believes in Ambit so much he wants the village government to become a customer, too.

Without a vote by the village board, the mayor weeks ago directed that Westfield break with its current natural-gas provider and go with Ambit Energy to heat village-owned buildings.

On his own, the mayor transferred the first two of seven natural-gas accounts to Ambit. He then realized that an abrupt switch could trigger a cancellation penalty of at least a few hundred dollars.

So the mayor reversed course and kept Westfield’s natural-gas business – worth about $15,000 a year – with a Buffalo-area company, Energy Mark of Williamsville. But only until Energy Mark’s contract expires in October.

At that point, VandeVelde expects village officials to embark on a new discussion about Ambit.

Some people say the mayor has gone too far and now straddles a clear conflict of interest, but he is not likely to sit on the sidelines during future discussions about the company.

“Come October, we will re-examine,” he told The Buffalo News.

“The odds of staying with Energy Mark are pretty slim,” he added.

VandeVelde denied any conflict of interest and insisted he will gain no personal benefit should Westfield buy its gas from Ambit. He said he hasn’t been an active consultant for a couple years, since before he became mayor.

Nor will a friend and daughter-in-law benefit, he said, though they would probably become the Ambit consultants on the village accounts.

Two of the four trustees for the village of 3,200 people agreed to consider a change from Energy Mark when VandeVelde showed them a smattering of cheaper gas rates. But that was before they knew he had been an Ambit consultant.

“He did not have the authority to do any of this,” said Trustee Debra Puckhaber, who has criticized VandeVelde on other issues. She said that to abide by the state’s General Municipal Law, the mayor should have disclosed his interest with Ambit Energy and recused himself from the matter.

Further, she believes that to conform with long-standing state law, village boards must vote to authorize or cancel contracts before mayors can execute those decisions. She vowed to raise the topic when trustees meet at 7 p.m. Monday.

Trustee Rick Raynor, who leaves office next month, voiced a similar opinion.

“It’s unethical and, in my opinion, borderline illegal,” Raynor said of VandeVelde’s move. “The conflict of interest – there are just all kinds of things that are wrong about it.”

VandeVelde, though, said the conflict does not exist and that he does have the authority.

“As mayor/CEO of the village, I’m allowed to make determinations to save the village money,” he said. Because Ambit required no contract, VandeVelde said, he felt he could press ahead without a formal village board vote.

Everyday people sell Ambit

Similar to Amway, or Avon, Ambit’s sales are fueled by a force of everyday people selling a product line to friends and associates, then persuading those friends and associates to sell products as well. As designed, each person in the blossoming network derives some benefit from sales by their new enlistees.

For example, Ambit consultants who sign up 15 gas customers or 15 electricity customers can receive the supply portion of their own gas or electric bills for free, VandeVelde said. He reached the 15-customer threshold long ago.

“I haven’t paid for the supply portion of my natural gas in three years,” he said.

Westfield’s first two accounts would have been credited to Ambit consultants Jennifer VandeVelde, the mayor’s daughter-in-law, and Laura Geraci, whom the mayor knows from his work at Fredonia State College.

Both women have a long way to go to attain 15 customers, he said, and might never get there. So to him, no one can say that they will derive some direct benefit from Westfield’s business or his actions as mayor.

“The only thing that would happen is there’s a guarantee that the Village of Westfield would save money on its supply,” he said.

Then he repeated his firm position that Westfield spends too much on natural gas by remaining with Energy Mark.

Email exchange gets heated

The controversy can be traced back to early this month.

Energy Mark consultant Kevin Clough told Westfield that by extending its current contract early it could – deep into a brutal winter – lock in cheaper rates resulting from a glut of natural gas from fracked wells.

The mayor balked.

Believing Ambit to be a viable alternative, he compared the energy rates posted online by the state Public Service Commission. Though Ambit’s rates were not the lowest of all the companies, they were among the lowest, and the mayor liked Ambit’s guarantee of savings for a number of months.

Clough – pronounced “Kloff” – countered that the mayor was relying on incomparable and incomplete data. Different sets of rates are available to villages, he said. And Clough forwarded to VandeVelde and Westfield trustees some of the complaints Ambit customers posted on a Better Business Bureau website for Dallas, Texas.

“I have been trying to contact Ambit Energy for three months on the phone and have never been able to speak to anyone,” read one complaint that was typical of the bunch. “My bill is very erratic and high.”

Clough said he would hate to see the village make “what’s been called the ‘Ambit mistake.’ ”

But the mayor persisted. Their email exchange grew heated and displayed just how much the mayor favored Ambit.

At one point, Clough came right out and asked him: “By your tone, I’m assuming you are the Ambit salesman? Isn’t that a conflict?”

“No, I’m not the Ambit salesman for the village,” VandeVelde responded. “But I have been an Ambit customer for 2½ years, and I know they are an outstanding and reputable company. That’s what’s so upsetting to me. You know that, too, but you took misleading information off a website and added it to your email as fact. That’s bothersome.”

By that point, VandeVelde had already instructed Clough to cancel Westfield’s accounts with Energy Mark. He later relented.

Employees’ positions threatened

Vincent Luce holds two posts with village government: village clerk and village administrator. It’s safe to say he has met hundreds of village residents in the nearly 18 years he has worked for Westfield.

As administrator, he was often in the middle of exchanges involving the mayor, Clough and the trustees as VandeVelde tried to build both an informal consensus and a convincing case to leave Energy Mark and go with Ambit.

“Whenever a board member has an interest or a vested interest in a company, my understanding is they are supposed to recuse themselves from making any decision on that, but it didn’t happen that way,” Luce said. “He said he was going to switch them over. And he didn’t get board permission that I know of.”

During his heated email exchange with Clough, VandeVelde told Luce to not deal with Clough “until he stops to see me.” That was fine with Luce, who no longer wanted to be in the middle.

But later, when VandeVelde told Luce to reinstate Energy Mark as the provider for the two natural-gas accounts he had switched to Ambit – accounts for the public works building at 51 Bourne St. – Luce didn’t do it. He had been told to have no contact with Clough.

The two accounts now are in a sort of limbo. It’s not clear if they are with Ambit, Energy Mark or National Fuel.

Even before the mayor learned that Luce did not reinstate Energy Mark, he told Luce he was unhappy with Luce’s lack of cooperation. The mayor, according to Luce, indicated he will not recommend Luce’s reappointment as village administrator when trustees meet for their annual reorganization session April 7.

The mayor told Deputy Clerk Becky Jackson the same thing, according to Jackson and Luce.

Like Luce, Jackson also has been with the village for nearly 20 years.

The day after the threat, however, VandeVelde had apparently softened toward Jackson. He told her that while he would reappoint her, she would be on a sort of month-to-month probation, Jackson said.

Luce will still hold the position of village clerk. But because his roles of clerk and administrator are intertwined, he’s not sure how the loss of one title will affect his salary of about $63,000 a year.

Asked about his threat not to reappoint the employees, VandeVelde said: “That certainly is an ongoing issue, and I have not made that determination. If that is how they took it, then they are taking it as stuff they have done to me to make me get to a point where that would happen.”

Luce said he was in an awkward position as the mayor pushed for Ambit.

“I didn’t feel comfortable with being able to talk to him about it objectively because of his involvement with Ambit,” he said. “But also he is my boss, and so are the village board members, and I didn’t want to defy or be insubordinate either.

“I felt I was kind of caught between a rock and a hard place.”