Saying the town should avail itself of the vast expertise among local residents, especially in light of a divisive proposal to erect a cell tower behind West School, Selectman Nick Williams on Tuesday pushed for the reinstitution of a volunteer body that focuses on utilities.
The Town Code calls for the establishment of a six-member Utilities Commission, Williams noted during a regular meeting of the Board of Selectmen. Under Section 12-4, the Utilities Commission “is created for the purpose of monitoring the activities and operations of public and private utilities servicing the residents and businesses of New Canaan to ensure that the needs of residences and businesses located in New Canaan are adequately met and that New Canaan’s consumers’ interests are represented before any applicable commission or agency having jurisdiction over the utility in question.”
While First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said that the mission is outdated and can only be updated by the Town Council, Williams said it’s “pretty broad.”
“It would encompass cell phone towers, which I am increasingly coming to the belief that these are antiquated things—150-foot-tall monopoles or whatever you call it—for my purposes seem outdated,” Williams said during the meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference.
He added, “To be clear, I’m not coming out against the West School tower. What I’m coming out for is to reconstitute the Utilities Commission.”
“What is your opposition to having an independent Utilities Commission, populated by very bright people in town?” Williams said. “We’ve got 20,000 people in this town, surely—in fact, I know two or three by name who have come to me and said, ‘I would like to be part of a Utilities Commission.’ And certainly if you look at the statute, it would encompass cellphone and tower usage. And I think it would be helpful to us as the Board of Selectmen, and you as the first selectman, to have that advice given to you.”
He added, “We can’t be chasing technology. We should be on technology or ahead of technology, and what I would like to do is to repopulate a commission that can do some real good in town by educating me, educating you and Kathleen and the Town Council and others with respect to where we are. What is the most feasible, expeditious way to get cell phone service? Is it a 150-foot monopole? Maybe it is, I don’t know.”
He referred to a proposed monopole behind West School—a plan that currently is before the Town Council, which held an initial public hearing last month regarding coverage on the west side of town, and plans to hold a second hearing on the proposal regarding health issues. An online petition opposing the West School cell tower has garnered more than 700 signatures.
Williams and Selectman Kathleen Corbet began pushing two months ago for the reinstitution of the Utilities Commission. (The discussion about the Utilities Commission on Tuesday was not on the selectmen’s agenda as originally set by Moynihan, but Corbet and Williams voted 2-0 to amend the agenda to include it.)
The appointed body had been dormant for years until former First Selectman Rob Mallozzi re-formed it during his first term in order to examine the prospect of bringing natural gas into town. It then grew to become a central body in studying the prospect of improving cellular service here and also taking advantage of solar energy.
In December 2017, weeks after winning the first selectman race by 33 votes, Moynihan said that he wished to dissolve the Utilities Commission while redistributing some of its responsibilities. Specifically, Moynihan said that he wanted to assign responsibility over solar energy in New Canaan to the Conservation Commission while he himself took on the task of improving cellular coverage in town.
The town website still lists the Utilities Commission as having three members, though that’s not a quorum for the six-person body. Though only the Town Council can effect a change to New Canaan’s local ordinances, Moynihan as first selectman sets the agenda for the Board of Selectmen, which appoints members to town boards and commissions. No prospective members of the Utilities Commission have appeared on the selectmen’s agenda since Moynihan took office.
In fact, the day after Moynihan won that municipal election five years ago, Tom Tesluk, then-chair of the Utilities Commission, resigned from the appointed body. And though Devereaux, who went on to serve as a selectman, argued in favor of preserving the Utilities Commission, the volunteer body’s last meeting agenda was posted in December 2018.
Moynihan, as he often has in the past, referred to his predecessor in responding to Williams, saying, “First of all, I remind you when Rob took office—” Williams interjected by saying, “It’s always about Rob. It’s obsessive.”
This exchange followed:
Moynihan: When Rob took office, the Board of Selectmen changed the mission of the Utilities Commission. And then when it was pointed out to you that you didn’t have the authority to do that, the Town Council did not do that, then it reverted to what is a very old mission. And I said before, I and [Administrative Officer] Tucker [Murphy] and [Public Works Director] Tiger [Mann] and others, [Emergency Management Director] Russ [Kimes], work with the utilities all the time, we have ongoing relations with them, so the former mission—
Williams: You said the word ‘I,’ meaning you.
Moynihan: Tiger, Tucker.
Williams: Tiger is an employee. Tucker is an employee. Nothing against Tiger and Tucker, I’m just saying we’ve got an ordinance that we’re not following. And you’re always very careful about populating the various commissions and committees and such, and this is just lying fallow. We still have three members on the Commission, according to the research that I’ve done.
Moynihan: Exactly. I’ve done nothing to disband. They still sit there. The only problem is the mission that was created 25 or 30 years ago is not a proper mission. That should go back to the Town Council. I checked with all the other surrounding towns, in terms of nobody has a Utilities Commission that does that, which is 30-year-old thinking. So I am fully in support, have the Town Council take a look again at what the mission is, and updating it. But we don’t have the authority to do that, the current mission is not what the
Williams: I think the mission is pretty broad, Kevin. And you and I are both lawyers and we can sit here all day and argue about the mission.
Moyinhan: We don’t have the authority to change the mission because it’s an ordinance.
Williams: So you have just admitted that there is still a Utilities Commission, and there are three members.
Moynihan: And they are free to meet under that very outdated mission.
When Williams said, “I don’t want to rely on just you and Tiger,” Moynihan responded: “Rely on Verizon and AT&T. Others will criticize these national carriers, the two national carriers. Verizon came forward—it surprised me, because they haven’t done anything in five years in New Canaan, they’ve been trailing A&T— but they want to spend $500,000 to improve their service. AT&T is going to be on that tower. Half a million dollars. These companies don’t spend their money unless it’s necessary to improve their service.”
Corbet agreed that the mission of the Utilities Commission, as written, is already sufficiently broad to encompass present-day needs, though she also said it’s a good idea to work on it with the Town Council.
“As we have done with the Audit Committee and the Ethics Board, this is a great topic to take up with members of the Town Council, whether it’s Nick or I, let’s work on making sure that all the good reasons I think we should be reconstituting the Utilities Commission are then brought before the Town Council, with the comparisons of other towns that are doing that, and I have looked into that,” Corbet said.
When Moynihan said that the Town Council should look into the Utilities Commission’s mission, Corbet said, “All the more reason that we should be working together to figure that out. I agree with that. So let’s as a Board of Selectmen embrace the opportunity to evaluate this and bring it before the Town Council.”
Moynihan agreed. Williams said, “Delighted to hear that you, Kevin, are in favor of updating and reconstituting the Utilities Commission.”
Moynihan responded, “Never said I was opposed to that.”