Nearly five years after New Canaan’s highest elected official did away with the municipal Utilities Commission by declining to appoint new members, some town officials are calling for its reinstitution.
In December 2017, one month after winning the first selectman race by 33 votes, Kevin Moynihan said that he wished to dissolve the Utilities Commission while redistributing some of its responsibilities—such as cell coverage, natural gas and solar energy.
Tom Tesluk, then-chair of the Utilities Commission, had resigned the day after Moynihan narrowly defeated Kit Devereaux. And though Devereaux, who went on to serve as a selectman, argued in favor of preserving the Commission, the volunteer body’s last meeting agenda was posted in December 2018.
During the Board of Selectmen’s Sept. 20 meeting, Selectman Nick Williams said, “We had talked about repurposing or getting back to a Utilities Commission at some point and I bring that up in the context of the cell phone towers because I think that’s an issue that a robust Utilities Commission could tackle and Lord knows in this town we’ve got experts all over the place that could help out with something like that.”
His comments came during a portion the meeting dedicated to general matters before the town.
Moynihan responded that he had attended all meetings of the Utilities Commission for four years while serving on the Town Council “to bird dog cell service.”
This exchange followed:
Moynihan: And Tom Tesluk resigned the day after the election.
Williams: So we just gave up?
Moynihan: No, no. The mission had been set and Homeland Towers has been doing a great job for us, as we asked them to do.
Williams: So, Homeland Towers has become our Utilities Commission? Is that right? Is that what you’re saying?
Moynihan: No, I’m just saying we hired them to do a job and they’ve been putting a lot of work into this.
The back-and-forth followed a challenge from Williams to how Moynihan is pushing for a cell phone tower to go up behind West School.
Under Section 12-4 of the Town Code, 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.”
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.
Moynihan said the town has made progress on all fronts.
“The Utilities Commission, they worked on gas,” he said. “We solved the gas problem. They worked on solar. We did more solar than any of them ever expected us to do. We work with the utilities in terms of Eversource and Aquarion and Frontier.”
Moyinhan said he doesn’t “see the need” for a Utilities Commission.
With respect to cell coverage, Moynihan said, “We just have to follow through on the strategy that Tom Tesluk very well designed, and we are implementing it. And if you haven’t been in town long enough to understand—I think most adults in town get it, especially Realtors—a house without cell service is not going to sell like a house with cell service.”
Selectman Kathleen Corbet said she also supported re-instituting the Utilities Commission.
“I think there are some talented people in town that could fill that role,” Corbet said. “And also we have had utility issues whether it’s water, electric, fiber, that I think would warrant the use of a Utilities Commission.”
She thanked Moynihan for all the work he’s done with respect to utilities during the past several years, adding, “I think they also could have been very helpful during that time. I think going forward there’s also an argument for why we should reconsider that.”
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.
At the time he did away with the Utilities Commission, Moynihan said that he wanted it to go dormant while assigning responsibility over solar energy in New Canaan to the Conservation Commission and creating a Technology Advisory Committee while he himself took on the task of improving cellular coverage in town. The Technology Advisory Committee has since been dissolved.