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Former State Rep Chris Hodgkins roils Lee loyalties

By Derek Gentile
Berkshire Eagle Staff

LEE -- Christopher J. Hodgkins, a former state representative and the man who took on former House Speaker Thomas Finneran when just about no one else would, has never been a stranger to controversy.

But he found himself in an unusual position last month, as former supporters booed his company, and townspeople questioned his integrity as he and other members of his team tried to sell the concept of having an outside company, Veolia Water North America, control Lee's sewer and water systems. The rancor was not comfortable for Hodgkins, or for many other residents of Lee.

Richard Johnson, project vice president for Veolia, admitted that the reaction from some Lee residents was surprising for him and members of the Veolia corporate team.

"I've been doing this for 10 years, and before that I was the city manager in Lowell," he said. "You're asking me if I've ever seen an issue get this personal in a town. No way.

"Look, I understand the immense fiscal pressures a community is under. So if you can do anything at all to shift a part of that responsibility to a private company, and let them deal with infrastructure issues and regulatory issues, you do it. That's what our thinking was.

"Now here you have a guy, Chris Hodgkins, who has 20 years of service to the community as a state representative," he continued. "And a guy with a reputation for honesty and forthrightness. How can that change so fast? "Plus, the best part about this: He lived in the town! You would think that a guy like that would make sure that Lee, where he lived, would get the best possible deal. Because if they didn't, people would be calling at all hours.

"I thought it was a wonderful thing for the town," he concluded.

Changing perceptions

But there were clearly other perspectives.

"Somewhere between being the idealistic, naive state representative he was 20 years ago, and being a spokesman for corporate America, Chris Hodgkins took a right-hand turn," said Deidre Consolati, one of the organizers of the grass-roots group Concerned Citizens of South Lee, which opposed the plan. "I have often pondered this, but I think many citizens' perceptions of him changed over the past few years."

Hodgkins, the vice president of Veolia Water North America, was one of several representatives from Veolia who pitched a plan that would call for his company to take over the operation of the town sewer and water systems. Hodgkins never tried to hide his involvement with Veolia and, as the town moderator, always stepped down from the podium and never participated in a town vote involving Veolia.

Issue vs. man

And while many opponents of Veolia insist that it was the issue, not the man, that drove their battle, some saw it otherwise.

"I think the sentiment was, because he's no longer out in the public sector, he wasn't on our side," said Selectwoman Patricia Carlino. "I don't believe that. Chris lives in Lee, his mother lives in Lee, his sister lives in Lee. I do not believe he would ever do anything to hurt the town of Lee.

"I think he saw this project as a good thing for his town," said Carlino. "And that's why he pushed it."

"I don't really pretend to understand the dynamics of this issue," conceded Town Manager Robert Nason. "I do know that the effect of all the emotion involved was to deflect the issues. Passion and emotion is great. But it should not have gotten in the way of the facts."

Hodgkins, Johnson and several other Veolia officials tried to explain that their plan would not involve taking over the town's water, that the employees at the water plant would remain on their jobs, albeit as Veolia employees, and that the town would set the water rates.

41-10 vote

Some people thought it was a good idea. But in the end, a majority of town representatives did not. The vote to offer a contract to Veolia was defeated, 41-10, two weeks ago.

"I was one of the 10 who voted in favor of that plan," said town representative Roberta "Bobbie" Pollard. "I probably won't get re-elected the next time around. But that's OK.

"As for Chris, well, some people don't like those who succeed," she said. "It bothers them. But I can't believe Chris would have ever done anything to hurt Lee. You'll never convince me of that."

"For me, the issue was that water is a public trust," said Margaret Biron, who with Consolati was one of the more outspoken critics of the Veolia plan. "The other issue was that I never felt that the employees were getting a fair deal.

"Forgetting about Chris Hodgkins, forgetting about whoever came here to sell that plan, the issues were very important."

Biron said she was not happy that Hodgkins represented Veolia, but added that she admires Hodgkins and was a supporter of him when he was a state representative.

"I think he's a wonderful guy, and he did some terrific things for education, for the town, for the environment," she said.

But for some, at least, Chris Hodgkins, the guy who won re-election time after time by overwhelming majorities, a state representative who was notable for his independent stance against former House Speaker Finneran, somehow became the bad guy.

"I essentially believe the townspeople and the representatives would have rejected the concept of privatization in whatever corporate form it appeared," said Consolati. "But there was Chris, spearheading Veolia's drive to take over Lee's water and sewer, not to mention the workers' jobs. For many of his supporters, that really hurt."

Hodgkins disagrees that he was the "spearhead."

"The energy in the room when we had that last meeting [on Sept. 23] was not just against me," he said. "It was against everybody who was in favor of the project."

Still, he conceded, "some people who opposed the project were angry that I was involved. It's always nice to dislike the corporate entity you don't know, but it got harder once my face was connected to it."

But, Hodgkins noted, he has been involved in water companies for the past dozen years, even when he was a state representative. He was briefly president and CEO of Krofta Technologies, before selling the company in 2002. He had owned it for two years.

100% renewal record

"I learned about water from [Krofta founder] Milos Krofta," said Hodgkins. "I'm a Lee boy, but people forget I've been in this industry for 12 years. Now I work for the leader in the industry. I'm proud of my connections to Veolia. We have a 100 percent [contract] renewal record. That's an amazing statistic."

Hodgkins added that the issue should not be whether he was criticized.

"Look at those poor folks who spent literally hundreds of hours of their own time, examining the contract and the plan, trying to do the best for the town," he said. "Those are the people I felt badly about."

"You had a local committee of dedicated people, who did all this work for free, and it basically got them a kick in the pants," agreed Pollard.