October 5, 2020

Courant: After a summer of widespread outages and rising rates, anger at utility companies explodes on the campaign trail

Public fury at Eversource over rising utility costs and widespread power disruptions this summer has spilled onto the campaign trail, where candidates running for the General Assembly are hammering the company and touting new accountability legislation.

The issue has become especially vexing for two Senate Republicans who work for Eversource and are running for reelection: George Logan of Ansonia and Kevin Witkos of Canton.

“People are ripped,” said attorney Melissa Osborne, a Democrat from Simsbury who is challenging Witkos. “We started door-knocking in September and people are honestly universally appalled when they find out my opponent works for Eversource. You can’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Connecticut has a part-time legislature; base pay for lawmakers is $28,000 annually. Almost every member of the House and Senate holds another job.

But Osborne and her fellow Democrats say being on the payroll of the state’s dominant utility constitutes an insurmountable conflict of interest, especially at a time when the legislature, riding a wave of populist anger, has been loudly critical of Eversource.

“It’s very difficult to hold your own employer accountable,” said Jorge Cabrera, a Democrat from Hamden running against Logan.

Logan said he has been “extremely careful” to avoid voting on bills that would benefit his employer. An engineer by training, he has worked at Aquarion Water Company since the early 1990s; Eversource acquired Aquarion in 2017.

Logan and Witkos have traditionally recused themselves from legislation affecting Eversource. But last week, both lawmakers voted in favor of a measure to establish a performance-based rate system and requiring utilities to reimburse customers for food and medication lost during an extended power outage. It also mandates utilities pay customers

$25 per day if power is not restored within 96 hours. (A third lawmaker, Enfield Republican John Kissel, an Eversource attorney, also voted yes on the bill.)

The legislation was crafted in response to complaints from frustrated residents about a slow response by Eversource following Tropical Storm Isaias, which took down trees and knocked out power for as long as nine days in some parts of Connecticut in August. Connecticut ratepayers were further incensed by a steep rate hike that kicked in over the summer.

In mailers, on social media and at the statehouse, lawmakers from both parties have taken a tough stance on Eversource.

“The public is angry enough to force us into action,” Sen. Rob Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott, said during the debate Thursday, “and to me, that is the way our government should work.”

A company spokesman, Mitch Gross, declined to comment.

Under state ethics rules, recusal from a vote is only required if a lawmaker “will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss” from a specific bill.

“I don’t think there’s any benefit to any of the electric companies with that bill,” Witkos said of the measure, which cleared the Senate by a unanimous vote Thursday.

Osborne called Witkos’ vote in support of the accountability legislation “an empty gesture on a unanimous vote when it was politically convenient.”

But Witkos, a former Canton police officer who now works as community relations liaison for Eversource, said it wasn’t the first time he has pressed for more accountability from the utility company. Earlier this year, his office sent a letter to state regulators criticizing Eversource’s rate hike, he said.

“I was shocked to see the doubling and tripling” of rates, said Witkos, the second-highest ranking Republican in the state Senate. “At a time when people are out of work or cutting back, to get a bill as high as everyone is getting is concerning.”

Cabrera, the business representative and director of organizing for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 919, said it was easy for Logan and the other Eversource employees in the Senate to vote in favor of the accountability legislation.

“Why did it take a crisis to get him to stand up for his constituents?” Cabrera asked. “Where was he two years ago? It doesn’t take much courage to vote on a bill with unanimous support.”

But Logan said every member of the General Assembly faces some type of conflict. “We’re a citizen legislature,” he said. “My opponent is a paid union boss. ... I think his conflict of interest far outweighs my own.”

Both Logan and Witkos accused their Democratic opponents of trying to make an issue out of their Eversource employment.

“She’s taking the huge public sentiment of anger against Eversource and trying to turn that against me,” Witkos said of Osborne. “I know people are upset with their electric bill. I am with mine as well.”

Daniela Altimari can be reached at dnaltimari@courant.com.

The Courant picks up on Kevin Witkos' Eversource problem.

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